I’ve just finished an obscure Stephen King novel – if there can possibly be such a thing – called The Colorado Kid. It was published in 2005 with Hard Case Crime, a publishing house who deliver a fine line in pulp covers with gaudy lettering. It looks brilliant. Eight years later, King returned to Hard Case Crime with Joyland, a carney mystery sporting a vivid pulp cover with gaudy lettering that looks brilliant. The two stories have become entangled in my head somewhat.
What King does so well is the old-timers-shootin’-the-breeze narrative. Invariably the story will work as a flashback and be told from the perspective of a wise, insightful, even-handed octogenarian. Or two, in the case of The Colorado Kid. They’ll make comments about the incomplete nature of the narrative, wry observations about the impossibility of reconciling the messiness of life with the neatness of fiction, dish out some homespun life lessons. Often the audience is the reader, sometimes King throws a youngster as a stand-in. In the latter case, at some point in the narrative a third party will pitch up with some sandwiches and cold cokes. There’ll be a patch of late August sun too, so no-one gets uncomfortable. They’ll all sit in the warmth and yarn. I love it.
Recently I was doing a class about flashback, using film as illustration. We started with Luhrmann’s Gatsby and discussed Carraway’s voice-over from the sanitorium particularly the line, “Back then, we all drank too much…” which became a productive prompt for a flashback story. Then we visited Jon Avnet’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café so we could see what happened when parallel narratives were established. It was good. Well, I enjoyed it.
There are a whole bunch of flashback techniques other than King’s, it turns out. Some are illustrations; a suspect’s response to a detective during an interview might become a compact flashback narrative. There are fractured flashbacks that come a piece at a time, building slowly to a whole, used particularly when a traumatic and suppressed memory is gradually returning. There are regret flashbacks; accounts of crucial errors. (I use these in Lifers.) There are flashbacks that occur from the mid-point of the story that effectively foreshadow what’s to come. Loads of ways to do it, folks.
Mostly though, I’ve been enjoying King’s old-timers-shootin’-the-breeze thing. Many of King’s stories may be dark, supernatural, disturbing, but when they are framed in a way that distances the content from us somehow, they’re made safe like diffused bombs. We can hold our breath and chew our fingernails as the narrative unfurls, but deep down we know we’re eating sandwiches, sipping cokes, and listening wise, insightful, even-handed octogenarians.
There’s no better way to spend a sunny afternoon than that.