RICHARD BACHMAN may have died of "cancer of the pseudonym," but 22 years after his fey demise, he remains belatedly prolific as manuscripts continue to surface, the latest being "Blaze."
Bachman is the early career alter ego of Stephen King (who was inspired by author Donald E. Westlake's pseudonym Richard Stark and the band Bachman-Turner Overdrive). Bachman is listed as the author of five previous novels, which are harsher and more rugged in tone than books written under King's name but not entirely devoid of King's trademark humanism. Two Bachman novels, "The Long Walk" and "The Running Man," both riffing on Richard Connell's famous 1924 short story, "The Most Dangerous Game," squeeze in camaraderie and John Ford-style swagger, even as the characters are gunned down by stoic soldiers or deceived by the public. However, the violence in Bachman's "first" novel, "Rage," an unusual and underrated tale of high school revenge and empathy, proved too scabrous; King took the book out of print when a copy was discovered in 14-year-old Michael Carneal's locker after he opened fire on praying students at a Kentucky high school in 1997.
"Blaze" is a trunk novel, recently unearthed by one of King's assistants and, like nearly every King cuneiform, rapidly released for public consumption -- but only after being reworked and updated by King. It depicts an attempted baby-napping by a slow-witted Maine drifter named Clayton "Blaze" Blaisdell Jr., a man actuated by money, cute babies and cars painted skylark blue. It bears the telltale marks of an older and more scrupulous King corralling a younger writer's wild ideas. One wonders whether a descriptive attribute like "the washed-out blue of desert skies in a Western movie" comes from an enthusiastic young movie fan or an older cinephile waxing nostalgic for John Sturges.
The plotting has the feel of a barely plausible if enjoyable grind-house movie, but it's hard to resist such delightfully named villains as Martin "The Law" Coslaw, a headmaster more taken with paddling adolescents than introducing them to the benefits of shredded cabbage. There's also an endearing pragmatism to Blaze's kidnapping scheme. As his pal puts it, "A baby can't ID you, so you can return it alive."
King's imagery is serviceable enough. "A Babel of odors" permeates a county fair. A musty manager named Harry Bluenote has "the dusty, ruddy color of any farmer's face," a toothy steakhouse owner "could have chewed a phone book to ribbons" and the baby's sleeping parents are "breathing nearly together, as if they were riding a bicycle built for two." There is subdued symbolism, such as the moment when Blaze shaves his scalp to elude the fuzz but ends up resembling the bald baby.
The novel doesn't entirely work as a hard-boiled Richard Stark-style detective tale, in part because Blaze is the kind of know-nothing drifter found in the frayed edges of Donald E. Westlake's "Dortmunder" novels. Blaze is the sort of crook who forgets to don his nylon stocking when robbing Tim & Janet's Quick-Pik and shows up the next night to rob it again, boldly announcing, "This time I remembered the stocking." He's the kind of kidnapper who makes a collect call and offers his real name to the operator. When Coslaw first meets Blaze, he remarks, "Such a long name for such a short intellect."
These setups are rich with comic potential. One wonders why "Blaze" isn't a full-fledged comic novel -- a genre King has never explored. Unfortunately, the author seems more concerned with Blaze's somewhat plodding back story. This includes a remarkably implausible chapter in which Blaze and his childhood pal tell a stranger they've stolen a wallet and end up getting steaks on the house. One suspects that if Bachman were alive, he'd have scoffed at such warmhearted nonsense.
Nevertheless, the novel has some intriguing literary antecedents. Blaze's favorite book is "Oliver Twist," a fitting choice considering the Dickensian character names scattered throughout the book. He's also haunted by George, a con pal who's been dead for three months and who now inhabits Blaze's head, often dictating how to hot-wire a car or evade police. George, with his noisome nagging, resembles a smarmier and less patient version of John Steinbeck's George in "Of Mice and Men." Like Lennie in that novel, Blaze suffered a childhood blow to the head -- from an alcoholic father instead of a horse. And Blaze holes up at Hetton House, an abandoned work camp that once featured a berry ranch similar to the one Steinbeck's George promised Lennie.
King also engages in blunt wordplay to describe the seedy environs. In addition to Blaze's childlike mangling of common words (e.g., "pockabook"), common in many of King's books, we're told of girls who "did variations," a euphemism about as tough as a Lawrence Welk downbeat. More successful are King's "gray bars," neither wholly straight or totally gay in makeup.
Although King's flourishes have turned out an entertaining book, it's a pity that he is more serious about being taken seriously as an author. He should have committed himself to writing a truly comic caper.
Edward Champion is a Brooklyn writer and host of the literary blog Return of the Reluctant at www.edrants.com.