On a whim, last week, I bought Stephen King’s The Outsider while I flew from California to Iowa. Now I’ll say up front that I have some ambivalence about Stephen King. He has trouble writing women who don’t fit the 1970s tropes. (Even his most bad-assed heroines still pull their fingers and bite their lips, and say things like “Ooough!” and “Hold it right there, mister.”) On top of that, I have trouble with some of King’s gratuitous vulgarity. (Such as the sex scene in IT, and the pistol scene in the first book of The Dark Tower, and the nearly inevitable animal violence that crops up every which way.) But considering all of that, I think King can build a locale like nobody’s business. I admit that he can create a genuine sense of dread. And finally, the more I see how his books connect, the more I respect him for his staggering sense of scope. For me, Stephen King is usually a better storyteller than he is a writer. But the world needs storytellers—so props to him.
So The Outsider surprised me. (Minor spoilers here.) The story is about a boy’s horrific rape and murder. The story goes into all the spooky directions that King calls home. But before it gets there, it spends nearly half the book empathizing—that’s the word—with every character in the story. You have the detectives and the DA who make a public arrest that becomes more and more doubtful. You have the arrested man, and his family, and the media’s court of public opinion. You have the victim’s family. In short, you have this whole gamut of folks whom King puts, individually, into the palm of his hand, so that you can see them as the terrified, conflicted, and basically decent people that they turn out to be. This means that the first half of The Outsiders is a character study of community tragedy. It’s deep, and it’s humane, and in that sense it is more literary than King usually is. It speaks, in fact, for justice.
If you aren’t paying attention—or don’t want to let it register—you might miss an instance at the very beginning of the book, when two black kids see the police, and run. They’ve got no reason to do so, other than the fact that they fear the cops. The police have nothing to do with these kids—because, in fact, they’re on their way to arrest their prime suspect. The moment is just a vignette; the kids never show up in the narrative again. But here they serve as a prologue for a book that is, at least in part, about cops making a bad arrest and trying to decide how far they’ll go to condemn an increasingly-innocent-looking guy, just to avoid bad press. And in this sense, of course, the kids do show up– again and again, throughout every convolution of this case.
Is The Outsider a good book? Well, it’s good in a pulpy sort of way. But unlike a lot of King, you get more from this narrative than you pay for. The Outsider offers two stories that center on humanity and monstrosity, each. And because of King’s careful focus on humanity, the first story will haunt you at least as long as the one about the eventual bogeyman.