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Fear with the familiar twists

Duma Key / A Novel / Stephen King / Scribner: 612 pp., $28

January 21, 2008|Richard Rayner | Special to The Times

"MY name is Edgar Freemantle. I used to be a big deal in the building and contracting business. This was in Minnesota, in my other life . . .," begins Stephen King's latest novel, "Duma Key." "I had an accident at a job site. It was pretty simple; when a pickup truck, even a Dodge Ram with all the bells and whistles, argues with a twelve-story crane, the pickup is going to lose every time."

Edgar's skull is fractured in three places. He loses an arm and almost his mind. "[B]ehind my forehead it was always midnight in the world's biggest clock-shop," he observes, brilliantly. He's in constant pain and angry all the time. His marriage goes south and his wife demands a divorce. He ponders suicide but instead opts for relocation. "I had Florida on my mind, the refuge of the newly wed and nearly dead."

On Duma Key, an island only 9 miles long and half a mile wide at its widest, he rents Big Pink, a house standing on pilings with its chin jutting out over the ocean. As the tide comes in, the shells beneath the house shake and rattle like bones.

Following his therapist's advice, Edgar has taken up art, "a hedge against the night," and once inside Big Pink he makes a drawing. The house seems to sigh and speak to him. "I've been waiting for you, it said." With this frisson, the story begins in earnest.

Slowly Edgar regains his health. His temper grows more level and his memory gets less shaky. He befriends Jerome Wireman, another refugee from a former life, who lives down the beach and looks after Elizabeth Eastlake, an old woman with Alzheimer's who owns much of the island. Elizabeth's tragic family history, it will turn out, is intimately bound with Edgar's burgeoning artistic gift, the brilliant pictures he feels increasingly inspired to paint.

The hanging stump of Edgar's right arm burns and itches as though his hand is still there. He feels possessed, and art bursts out of him: surreal Dali-esque sunsets, visions of murder and a ship trailing lost souls in its wake. "When I stood before my easel in Little Pink at sunset, stripped to my gym shorts and listening to The Bone, watching 'Girl and Ship No. 7' emerge from the white with eerie speed (like something sliding out of a fog bank), I felt totally awake and alive. . . . " Art saves Edgar, but then he realizes it might also kill him or those he loves. His pictures come to reflect not only past doom but future horrors. It's a beautiful, scary idea, and King dives into it with gusto.

The book is a slow burn, and the better for it. Scores of pages are spent developing Edgar's character, and his friendship with Wireman, and then telling Wireman's backstory. Here's a guy who literally shot himself in the head and couldn't even get that right. "We fool ourselves so much we could do it for a living," Wireman says, and the reader shares the pleasure King presumably felt in making this sad yet gleeful character rock on the page, complete with tufted eyebrows and dialogue that is sometimes wise, often goofy.

King is excellent as always on family dynamic, and the agonies and unexpected rewards of Edgar's tormented relationship with his wife, Pam -- a marriage that only seems to be over -- are lovingly and wisely rendered.

No other popular novelist, perhaps no other contemporary novelist period, can take recognizable, ordinary people and put them through the wringer with such cackling panache while always keeping sight of their humanity. King's characters are always fixed in the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day, wearing silly sneakers or scarfing down luncheon meat out of the fridge, and that's a huge part of his gift and success. He dotes on the creations he tortures and when Wireman says, "This made cocaine seem like Xanax," we're sure that the writer knows whereof his invention speaks. King understands crunching pain and the agony of the disarrayed mind. He's been there.

"Duma Key," like "The Shining," concerns creativity and features a damaged man on whom a place acts like a psychic magnet. King's work has always been colored by region and landscape, and here he seizes on and makes vivid an exotic world: the Florida Keys. It's a whole island, not a mere hotel this time, that calls to Edgar and almost demands his presence, so that a tale can be brought to its climax, or spun into another cycle.

One of horror fiction's central ideas is thus brought into play, namely how we perceive the relationship between our fear of chaos and our creeping sense that dreadful events are part of a fated and unstoppable sequence. The crane crushed Edgar at random; but after that everything seems to be written, as if a nagging part of him knows he's been drawn into the inescapable logic of a nightmare.

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