A Filthy City By The Lake

‘By the thousands and thousands the foreclosures came,’ George Packer writes in The Unwinding, his temperate and beautiful chronicle of downturn America. ‘They came to Country Walk and Carriage Pointe, to inner-city Tampa and outermost Pasco, to Gulfport and northeast St. Pete… They came like visitations from that laconic process server, the angel of death.’ At the courts, these foreclosures ‘were transformed into millions of pages of legal documents… the carts were wheeled into courtrooms by bailiffs who looked weary from the effort.’

Florida courts in Packer’s account dealt with approximately 120 foreclosure cases a day: ‘one senior judge, aged seventy-five or so, might carry three thousand cases at a time.’ Mostly defendants weren’t represented or even in attendance, so cases were ruled with assembly-line speed. On the occasions a defendant turned up and with an actual lawyer, the bank’s case was lost because the mortgage debt had been slashed and diced so many times it would be unclear who truly owned the property in question. (Packer has a great scene where an idealistic attorney yells at a judge: ‘All we’re asking is for them to identify who is the entity that is asking my client to give them a couple hundred thousand dollars.’) This uncertainty of debt and obligation, however, didn’t stop the process. Packer paints a scene from a mad bureaucratic fantasia.

I thought of this chapter on finishing End of Watch, the last book in Stephen King’s trilogy of novels about a ‘filthy little city residents called the Gem of the Great Lakes.’ These books are King attempting a departure or perhaps a different kind of legacy. Rather than his native Maine, the stories are set in this nameless city of the Midwest. King doesn’t love this city like he loves Maine, so he doesn’t linger. There’s a tight rattle to prose and story, and the stories are crime procedurals rather than horror. Even in the last book where King lets the supernatural take over again entirely, the story is still process and procedure – doors unlocked, small thefts and subterfuge, the unspooling of computer programmes, the operations of motor vehicles, the millions of small distinct actions that go into the commission and investigation of crime.

This filthy little city is falling apart. What might have been great once is now a tired moonscape of repossessed homes, stalled developments, fire-sale businesses and families broken by the constant struggle and arguments over day to day repayment and expense. King might have read Packer, was probably remembering his own experiences of poverty, and was perhaps thinking of Raymond Chandler also – a novelist derided as a penny-dreadful merchant in his day, but who earned retrospective respect for his social commentary. This world, like the Dark Tower’s, has moved on, but lacks Mid-World’s glammer: it’s just another one of numberless lost towns on both sides of the Atlantic, rich and bitter soil that makes it possible for a Donald Trump to exist… and thrive.

In Finders Keepers – the mid point of the trilogy and in some ways the most interesting of the books – King introduces us to a fictional novelist called John Rothstein, author of an acclaimed trilogy about American rebel Jimmy Gold. Rothstein exists for a mere dozen pages before his home is invaded by Morris Bellamy, a drifter and armed robber who fancies himself a Gold-style iconoclast. Morris resents the writer because Rothstein ended his trilogy with Jimmy Gold working in advertising and living in an Ossining-style suburb. ‘You created one of the greatest characters in American literature, then shit on him,’ Morris complains. For this crime, he blows Rothstein’s head off, steals the author’s money and notebooks, and on the way back, casually offs his two accomplices to ensure their silence. But he never gets to read the lost Rothstein manuscripts, which take the Gold story in a direction more to his liking: Jimmy burns down his ad agency and heads to California to join the hippy revolution.

King has been here before of course. He satirised the rock and roll American novelist to great effect in Desperation (and is it a coincidence that the Shooter’s Tavern, where Morris is arrested, shares a name with the forbidding lost storyteller of King’s novella ‘Secret Window, Secret Garden’?) For me Rothstein’s murder and the loss of his manuscript is King broadcasting to us, loud and clear, that the era of the frontier is over. Morris sees his transgressions as ‘an existential act of outlawry’ and doesn’t listen to his mother, who tells him ‘most of us become everyone’ nor to his business partner Andy Halliday (‘The purpose of American culture is to create a norm‘) nor to his prison buddy: ‘They fuck you in the end, buddy. Right up the ass. Rock the boat and they fuck you even harder.’ Life in the filthy city is a life sentence with no possibility of escape or parole.

So much of the filthy city novels are about sheer endurance. King gives his hero detective, Bill Hodges, a personal trilogy of horrible diseases – suicidal depression, cardiac arrest, pancreatic cancer. The victims of Mr Mercedes and his job-fair attack take years to recover from their injuries, and some never recover at all. Morris is sentenced to life for aggravated rape: his victim is traumatised by the experience. Morris himself does thirty-six years in state prison, where he’s a kind of literary jailhouse hustler. He even springs a fellow con who has been wrongly convicted – but Morris is not Andy Dufresne, he doesn’t learn the meaning of hope, there’s no Shawshank redemption here, and Finders Keepers is in some ways a bitter mockery of King’s earlier prison tale.

Morris is more like another King archetype, one of that parade of legendary losers that includes Henry Bowers, Danforth ‘Buster’ Keaton, even Mordred the spider-prince from the Dark Tower cycle. The only difference is that Morris can read and write and appreciate. ‘Books were escape. Books were freedom.’ What he’s looking for is that feeling Don DeLillo wrote about in Mao II: ‘a sense that he was not alone, that the world was a place where travellers in language could know the same things.’ Morris is a robber, a killer, a kidnapper and a rapist, but he is a mere sideshow to the trilogy’s real villain, Brady Hartsfield, aka Mr Mercedes, who lacks even that basic instinct for companionship. Thinking about 9/11, Brady reflects: ‘Off you go, killers and killed alike, off you go into the universal null set that surrounds one lonely blue planet and all its mindlessly bustling denizens. Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a star. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.’

Brady is famous for his Mercedes crime – driving a car into a crowd of unemployed people queuing for a city job fair – but what he really likes is forcing people to kill themselves, which he does by supernatural means in the final book. At the end of this book Hodges thinks about the act of suicide itself: ‘how some people carelessly squander what others would sell their souls to have: a healthy, pain-free body. And why? Because they’re too blind, too emotionally scarred, or too self involved to see past the earth’s dark curve to the sunrise. Which always comes, if one continues to draw breath.’ Here King finally gives us hope – but in his filthy city stories he shows us how long that curve can be.


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