“Hearts in Atlantis” was released in September, 1999 but King had this 522-page collection of two novellas and three short stories finished in December 1998, before his near-fatal car accident in June of 1999. Sales and reception of the collection were probably hindered by this, but the collection is still a thing of beauty.
This is King’s deep dive into the generation involved with the Vietnam War. King repeatedly refers to this generation, and America during this time period, as the lost city of Atlantis. In one passage, King even refers to the war itself as “the apocalyptic continent drowner.”
These stories span from 1960 to 1999 and are all connected by feel, theme, and recurring characters. The first two stories have a feel of a brewing storm and impending doom while the last three all seem to deal with the after-effects of the storm (flood). They are all beautifully written; it is truly some of King’s best work.
“Low Men in Yellow Coats”
1960: They had a stick sharpened at both ends.
The first story in the collection is a beautiful coming of age tale, somewhat similar in feel to King’s novella “The Body.” Here King introduces the readers to all the main characters you will encounter later. Bobby Garfield, Carol Gerber, John Sullivan (Sully-John), William (Willie) Shearman and Ted Brautigan.
Bobby is the main character in this one. He lives with his mother and pals around with his best friends, Carol and Sully-John. An older gentleman, Ted, moves into the apartment above Bobby’s. Ted and Bobby soon become unlikely friends and Ted hires Bobby to read him the paper and keep a lookout for Low Men in yellow coats, as well as a few other signs.
We learn Ted is a “breaker” and the Low Men are after him because he can help destroy the beams supporting the dark tower, the nexus of the universe. Bobby, upon learning all of this, was obviously confused. All of that makes more sense if you’ve read “The Dark Tower” series.
If you have already read “The Dark Tower” series, then Ted and all his little references are incredible pleasing. If you haven’t, well, read that series. That’s all I’ll say because it is amazing.
Anyway, Bobby comes to love Ted, learn from Ted, and see Ted as a father figure. When Ted must leave toward the end of the novella, Bobby doesn’t take it well. The last few pages, watching Bobby turn from a sweet young boy to an angry teen, are heartbreaking.
“You had to keep your nose to the grindstone and your shoulder to the wheel. Life wasn’t easy, and life wasn’t fair.” – Bobby Garfield.
There’s a lot more to this novella, but I don’t want to spoil too much for you and there are more stories to get to!
“Hearts in Atlantis”
1966: Man, we just couldn’t stop laughing.
The titular story in the collection. This one almost felt like a non-fiction story. Pete Riley is the lead here and we get to journey through freshman year at the University of Maine during the beginnings of the Vietnam conflict through his perspective.
Pete makes many friends on his hall, one of whom, Ronnie Malenfant appears in the following two stories as well. Another is Carol Gerber. Yep, the same Carol Gerber. Carol and Pete get pretty chummy if you know what I mean, but she leaves school for good after Thanksgiving break to protest the Vietnam War.
“Hearts are tough. Most times they don’t break. Most times they only bend.” – Carol Gerber.
Ronnie gets Pete’s entire freshman dorm hall enamored with the card game Hearts. The freshman are so obsessed with “chasing the bitch” that over half of them move dorms, or flunk out. This becomes problematic and much more serious once the reality of being drafted hits the boys.
Toward the end of the semester, Pete and his best friend Skip plead to their teachers for extra opportunities or make-up tests to bring their grades up. Their pleas work and both boys pass their freshman year and successfully avoid the war.
“Years later I realized that for many of the instructors it was a moral issue rather than an academic one: they didn’t want to read their ex-students’ names in a casualty list and have to wonder if they had been partially responsible; that the difference between a D and a C-minus had also been the difference between a kid who could see and hear and one sitting senseless in a V.A. hospital somewhere.” – Pete Riley
Throughout the novella, King emphasizes the feeling of impending doom that is the escalating crisis in Vietnam. We see Pete fall in love, and lose her to protests. We see Pete make friends, and lose them to Hearts. We see Pete start to fail, revitalize his schooling, and then throw it all away to protest the war himself.
King leaves us with conflicting feelings of empowerment and dread. “Hearts in Atlantis” is a beautiful novella and King utilized the realism and non-fiction feel to drive home the Atlantis metaphor.
“Time goes by, Atlantis sinks deeper and deeper into the ocean, and you have a tendency to romanticize.” – Pete Riley
Both, “Low Men in Yellow Coats” and “Hearts in Atlantis” deal with the youth learning the world is bigger than what they thought. The next three stories deal with how that world is not a nice place.
1983: Godbless us every one.
“Blind Willie” follows a day in the life of Willie Shearman, yep the Willie I mentioned from “Low Men in Yellow Coats.” Willie leaves home every morning, goes to an office building where he writes notes apologizing to Carol Gerber (yeah her again) for helping his friend beat her up when they were kids. After this is done, Willie dresses as a blind homeless man and panhandles for money.
Willie is a Vietnam War vet. He fought alongside Sully-John (yep, same guy) and Ronnie Malenfant. He was sent home after being partially blinded by a flash-bang grenade and carrying a seriously wounded Sully-John to safety.
Willie is not actually blind, only pretends to be when he panhandles. He has to pay off a cop who isn’t convinced of his ploy.
This was the weakest story in the collection, but it was still good and dealt with heavy themes guilt and contrition.
“Why We’re in Vietnam”
1999: When someone dies, you think about the past.
This story follows Sully-John in his post-war days. After being wounded and saved by Willie, Sully starts to see the ghost of a Vietnamese woman whom Ronnie had killed, seemingly for no reason.
Years later, Sully is attending the funeral of one of his fellow soldiers and reminisces with his old Commanding Officer. They discuss how everyone who came home is falling apart (drowning), dying too early and selling out.
After the funeral, while stuck in traffic on his way home, Sully spots a woman who looks like Carol Gerber. Sully dated Carol before college and had been seeing her photos in the news at anti-war protests. One article in particular mentioned a house she was in had burned down.
Sully realizes the woman is not Carol and random objects begin falling from the sky, crushing cars and killing people. He gets hit by a baseball glove… his old friend Bobby Garfield’s baseball glove.
In the final pages, I won’t say how, but King tears our heart out.
“Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling”
1999: Come on, you bastard, come on home.
The final story in the collection, the epilogue of sorts. Bobby Garfield has returned home for a funeral.
Bobby and his mother left their hometown shortly after Ted did. In the years that followed, Bobby was troubled and a problem child. He eventually cleaned himself up, and that is where we see him now.
While home, he revisits areas around the town, churning up old childhood memories. Bobby is sitting on a park bench when Carol comes up to him. Bobby is shocked because he had presumed Carol was dead after reading about her protests in the paper.
Throughout their conversation, Bobby reveals he received a package from Ted. The package contained his baseball glove and a message telling him to go home.
This was a mini reunion and slightly heartwarming, while at the same time very sad. The few remaining survivors of Atlantis. King brought everything full-circle… as he tends to do.
Overall I thought this collection was incredible. King absolutely crushed it. These stories were beautiful, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and impactful.
I hope I didn’t give too much away in my review, and I hope, if you’re confused or thought some things were too vague, then you’ll grab yourself a copy. I highly recommend you check it out.
5 out of 5.