The Gunslinger by Stephen King

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Through a desert that stretches across time itself, the gunslinger’s hunt for answers is The gunslingerall that remains in a barren world that has forgotten itself.  So opens Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, the first in what would become the seven-part Dark Tower series.  The book represents the beginnings of Stephen King’s career as a writer; the story of the gunslinger, Roland of Gilead, is based loosely on his college reading of Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by the 19th century poet Robert Browning.  In this poem, Roland undergoes several tests and hardships to reach the Dark Tower.  The Gunslinger opens much the same way, albeit in a different time and place.

Roland rises out of the dust of the Old West, a man of lost principle in a world that has moved on, plagued by the memory of his past and the drive of his quest for the tower, more vital even than the need of water and rest.  King pulls Roland from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, and the gunslinger’s hard face is best seen in Clint Eastwood’s.  You immediately see the resemblance in their eyes and in their quick hands most of all.  Yet Roland is harder than the Man with No Name; he says less, and his will is governed by the need for answers, not a doomed sense of justice.  And despite his nobility and sense of morality, reaching the tower is his only motivation, and he’s not unwilling to use those closest to him to get there.

Echoes of our world fill the arid landscape that makes up Roland’s journey.  Hey Jude and the Man Jesus distract the washed out remnants of a people from succumbing to the devil weed in a town that holds no welcome for the gunslinger.  His search for answers – for the man in black – leads him through Tull, a Tombstone, Arizona long past its glory days and dwindling into dust.  His experience there leaves him with another memory that wakes him at night.  The “moving on” of the world speaks of his Ghost Townlife, of the decline of his own land, the fading of his world and his memory of it.  But it also speaks of ages past, when words like Amoco meant more than a local deity to be revered by a people who never knew industry.  A passage through the mountains shows signs of a what was a modernized world crumbling to dust, the remains of a catastrophe that wreaked havoc on both the land and its inhabitants.

All of these elements form a plot that speaks to the kid in us who grew up watching westerns with grandpa.  But King’s characterization of the gunslinger’s moral quandary, of his wrestle with what is right and what is the Tower, sets it apart from other stories.  At a waystation in the desert, a husk of the forgotten world, Roland meets a boy alone and abandoned.  He learns that the boy has come from a world identical to our own by means of his death beneath the wheels of car on a corner in New York.  The purpose of boy’s presence is immediately clear to the gunslinger, and it is both his undoing and his salvation as his hunt for the man in black and his answers reaches its end.

Much of the book consists of nested stories recounted by Roland.  We learn of the doom of Tull when he tells the story to a farmer who offers water and rest.  His boyhood trials give strength to Jake as he and the gunslinger defy both the desert and the mountains.  And his palaver on the far side of the mountain with Walter, the man in black, is a chance to listen, but not to understand.  Storytelling is key, both in this book and in sequels in this series, and little by little a narrative begins to form from the myriad anecdotes offered as moments of revelation.  As the series progresses, it becomes even more important, as King weaves all of his stories into this central narrative, the tower of his own works.

A Fistful of DollarsThe story that unfolds in this book is haunting, but it is the cult of the gunslinger’s character that draws the reader in.  We see him through many eyes, and we begin to recognize him as gunslinger not by the guns on his hips, but by the look in his eyes, the unflinching steel of ages past.  He is in many ways a simple man, not wracked by doubt or guilt, though there is plenty of self-loathing. At the end of the book, we see him walking on, questions still unanswered and another puzzle laid before him.  When he reaches the sea, we realize that this is only the first leg of what will become a long journey through many worlds and many times.

Pages: 336 FOA Pages: 21,875

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