“Hearts in Atlantis”, a series of linked short stories, is Stephen King’s study of the sixties. Two of the stories are clearly supernatural, one might be, and the other two are fairly naturalistic. How innocence dies and what it means to several characters and the nation at large is examined over a span of almost forty years.
The first story, “Low Men in Yellow Coats” is set in 1960 when a somewhat odd old man moves into the same apartment building with young Bobby Garfield and his bitter, widowed mother. Next to King’s usual well-written depictions of childhood crises (real ones, not just the ones we think important when still a child) there are clear links to his vast “Dark Tower” series and various fantastical doings. There are also first loves, family lies and sudden irrational violence. It is the most overtly supernatural story in the collection but it also sets up the world as Mysterious place. Strange connections and loyalties will be forged in childhood that will follow children into middle aged adulthood.
The second tale, “Hearts in Atlantis” is about the awakening of several students at University of Maine (including some from the first story) to the nature of the Vietnam War and birth of the counterculture. Some students are swept up in the coming social storms already sweeping America in 1966 and are carried off to parts unknown. Running through the story is the destructive effects of one dorm’s addiction to the game of hearts.
The third and fourth stories, “Blind Willie” and “Why We’re in Vietnam”, dissect the aftermath of the Vietnam War and psychic damage wrought on some of its participants. One veteran tries to atone for the sins he’s committed and another is haunted (perhaps literally) for the sins he failed to prevent. The naiveté and almost sweet innocence of the early sixties has been smothered with remorse and the need to do penance. Again, characters participating or mentioned in the earlier stories are woven into these ones. People who were minor characters become major, becoming fulcra for destiny changing events.
Realistically the connections between the characters are fantastical. Too many coincidences and improbable meetings across too many years happen to properly mimic reality. What they do, though, is cry out how much what we do impinges on our fellows, be it good, bad or merely unintended. Someone steals a baseball mitt at age eleven and it comes back several times over the ensuing decades to haunt different people. Another person, known in childhood, turns to radical politics and her image, real and imagined, travels across the years and the continent. No one escapes the consequences of his or her actions and no actions fail to have an effect beyond their original intentions.
The book is brought to a circle in the final story, "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling," with the return of Bobby Garfield as man now in his fifties. For almost forty years he has borne the weight of his actions and friendships and at times they seemed ready to break him. He is brought back to
The Atlantis motif comes from a Donovan song and for King is the sweet and charmed sixties before the Vietnam War and the cultural revolution turned the country into some sort of madhouse. By the book’s end some characters come out and explicitly say that for a bright moment it looked liked the people, particularly the baby boomers, were ready to change the fundamental nature of the country for the better. King then reminds us that they failed, and became stockbrokers and speculators and self obsessed and Atlantis sank beneath the sea.
I’ve never looked back at the sixties (particularly as a seventies kid) with anything less than low-level contempt for the smelly hippies I see in the news clips. I remember a professor, who had been active the anti-war movement, telling me that the big protests stopped the minute the draft ended. I’ve also seen clips from the local paper where SI Community College kids talked about how they shouldn’t go to war because they were the nation’s future, unlike the working class kids getting drafted. For me, Altamont’s a better vision of the times than Woodstock. There was a lot more self preservation and interest than universal brotherhood than people like to admit to at times.
That being said, King does a good job at making a case for innocence lost and people making valid stands for real beliefs. By focusing on characters who are pretty straight or at least uninvolved in the shifts in society starting to occur, he shows the incremental steps, sometimes taken just to get close to a girl, sometimes taken for fairly noble reasons, that in the end bring them into the post-Atlantis America.
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