February 10, 2010 Constant Readers

Charlie Decker isn’t happy with his parents, his teachers, or his classmates. He is a classic Salinger-esque character with two vital differences: he has a gun and he clubs teachers over the head with pipes. Decker kills his algebra teacher in the beginning of the novel and proceeds to hold his class hostage for the remainder of the day with the intention of keeping them there until he’s convinced that they have “fully gotten it on.” Originally published under the now-dead Richard Bachman pseudonym, Rage can only be found in existing copies of The Bachman Books: Four Early Novels or as a stand-alone paperback that’s second in rarity only to the Jerusalem’s Lot edition of Salem’s Lot

Andrea: So did you like Rage this time around?

Pat: Most of the beginning isn’t very interesting, the way it’s presented. You can see where he’s trying to work the character out through the process of writing a narrative. It doesn’t get good until the point where I think King realized where he wanted to take the story.

Andrea: What is the deal when he keeps talking about the squirrel?

Pat: The beginning is full of derivations from Catcher In The Rye and…well, just that. Maybe it has to do with the generally sunny disposition of squirrels? A longing for the ability to live on instincts instead of catering to social mores?

Andrea: And how nice the lawn looks. Is it supposed to show that he can show compassion even though he is insane. Something like that. It is clumsy symbolism.

Pat: I think it’s meant to show that the real world reaches all the way up to the walls of the high school, but doesn’t get inside, which is part of what Charlie’s problem with school is: everyone is in the weird pseudo-reality of adolescence. It’s very overtly Holden-Caulfield-with-a-gun.
Andrea: Yeah, transparently so. It’s a good story and it’s entertaining, but the writing is not great. I firmly believe that Stephen King is underrated and is truly one of the great writers of our time—but if I were to present evidence for that theory I would not include this book.

Pat: Story-wise, I think you’re wrong. The way he tries to show the life of a teenager in a different way from how even teenagers see it is awesome. And telling. I mean, we all know that the trappings of adolescence are bullshit we’ve just made up in our heads, but SK goes the extra mile and makes a convincing argument why

Andrea: Agreed. That’s why I mean by “I think it’s a good story.” But the language is stilted and the tangents where he goes off into Charlie’s mind didn’t always hold my interest. Although maybe that is part of his point, that madness is banal?

Pat: I think the point isn’t that madness is banal, but that most of the time it’s indistinguishable from intelligence. “Damned if you sound crazy,” as Philbrick said.

Andrea: Near the beginning of the book, Charlie says something about how “that’s when I started to lose my mind.” It made me wonder, would someone who was insane know it or not?

Pat: No, that’s one of the hallmarks of insanity. I can’t remember what I was watching—I think it was the episode of Lost where Hurley is seeing his imaginary friend—and this one character says to him that crazy people never think they’re going insane; they think they’re getting saner.

Andrea: So you are saying that part does not ring true?

Pat: It’s a tremendously shitty line, regardless of whether it rings true. It rings hollow


Andrea: Agreed. Did you read the “Why I Was Bachman” essay? It indicated that King started Rage as a senior in high school. And apparently people always speculated that King was Bachman from the time Rage came out.

Pat: I’ve read it before. I think the only important thing to remember about Bachman is that he died from “cancer of the pseudonym.”

Andrea: The back cover copy on The Bachman Books refers to “savage secrets of lust and violence.”

Pat: I think the drastic misrepresentations Signet and other publishers have made on the front and back covers of the book over the years would have been enough reason for King to pull it from publication.

Andrea: Like what?

Pat: From the Signet paperback: “His twisted mind turned a quiet classroom into a dangerous world of terror.” You could add “…for only one student” and it would be closer to being true. And then a later paperback had the tagline “The problem was complex, the solution was killingly simple.” Which isn’t even clever. If you’re going to go cheesy, “dead simple” is way better. Or maybe “The problem was complex, but his solution was dead-on.”

Andrea: Those are both really bad. But they make the book sound really pulp which it kind of is. Things were way sleazier in the late 70s.

Pat: The best parts of the novel are the interactions with adults. Not the first one, with the principal—although I like the coming-out-of-the-office-looking-like-a-rape-victim thing—but the conversations with Grace and Philbrick.

Andrea: I liked those too. Like when he wouldn’t let Grace ask any questions or he would shoot someone. It was a really good tense scene. Charlie mentions his heavy breathing, and says it is “unsanitary and somehow homosexual.”

Pat: The best psychiatrists are!


On Writing About Writing About Being In High School
Andrea: It is amazing how many problems of adolescence would disappear if people just waited them out.
Everything seems awful when you are a teenager. Way bigger than it is. And some do drastic things because of that. But if you just wait like 5 years you will realize that nothing is that big a deal

Pat: That’s because everyone’s inside their own head and no one realizes that everyone’s going through the same thing. That’s Charlie’s whole deal. He gets them to be open, and they all (except Ted) see that, cliché!, they’re not that different. Or at least they are equally screwy.

Andrea: What is Ted’s deal? I mean I recognize that he sucks but his character isn’t really very deep. Does it ring true that everyone turns on him?

Pat: Stop saying ring true! I think his character is perfect. He’s a lightning rod for all of the douchebaggery of high school. He just doesn’t get it.

Andrea: What else can I say that means ring true that is not ring true? Even though the language is a little stilted, it still has that same cinematic quality. Like when he says that his dad’s friends around the campfire look like a bunch of talking praying mantises. Boom—instant mental picture.

Pat: Yeah. I really enjoyed those story breaks.

Andrea: Me too. More than the main story I think. So, what about the hunting trip? Clearly that was the catalyst for his madness, right? Cherokee nose job!

Pat: It wasn’t any one thing. It was a confluence of things; pretty much all of the stuff he tells the stories about: the camping trip, the night in Orono, Dicky Cable and the birthday party.

Andrea: His dad and the plate glass windows. I laughed really hard when he asked the principal to have a circle jerk. Do you think anyone has actually ever done that or do you think it is one of those things that is made up for porn? Digressionary spending.

Pat: I have no idea. I believe that nearly everything sexual has been done, except for the Houdini.

Andrea: What is the Houdini? Should I even ask?

Pat: From Urban Dictionary: “the act of porking a girl doggy in front of a window, while in the act quickly and quietly switch places with a pre-determined friend/partner. While your friend keeps the girl busy, you go to the window and wave at her.”

Andrea: I used to think glory holes were made up and then I was at Dylan’s going away party and almost went to go pee in an adult bookstore, but his friend stopped me cause he said there was a glory hole in there.

Pat: There was such a notorious glory hole in the fine arts building at UMBC that they closed the bathroom.

Andrea: That sounds like an urban legend. The Houdini, not the glory hole.

Pat: Right. I don’t know if it’s ever happened. I’m not sure I like that King went with the limp dick angle for Charlie’s one sexual experience. I wanted Charlie to get laid.

Andrea: I know. I kind of liked him. I really liked that whole party scene. It definitely felt very real. I laughed when he said that he could pole vault on his boner.

Pat: Pole-vaulting on boners is a Pulitzer Prize-winning idea.

Arnold Schwarzenegger And Maidenpieces
Andrea: In the beginning of the book he says he is going insane, but later he says he is sane. Is that part of the insanity or is it a continuity error?

Pat: We’re talking about a teenage boy as a narrator. Hardly reliable!

Andrea: That’s true. I like when he says “Sometimes in the dark I think that hideous random moment is still going on” when he shoots the teacher.

Pat: That’s very true for all of the worst moments in life, too.

Andrea: My favorite parts of his books, and the richest and most vivid I think, are the little side stories. Like in this one, when he is talking about his mother’s college roommate who got burned alive a month after her wedding. And he is looking at her photos and wanting to go back in time and warn her not to take a shower when her husband is away.

Pat: That was interesting, but I don’t know that it had any bearing on the story. Although I could attribute it to the idea that one bad thing happens and everything changes, like the shooting or the clubbing of Mr. Carlson.

Andrea: It really doesn’t have any bearing on the story, but I still often enjoy those parts the most. How about The Creaking Thing?

Pat: That’s classic SK. The idea that the things that go bump in the night are things we know intimately.

Andrea: Like your dad doing your mom. Gross! Another part that made me laugh really hard was “no maidenhead too tough to resist the seasoned dork of modern psychiatry.” Do you remember in 7th grade history when Mr. Short informed us that a dork was a whale penis?

Pat: THAT WAS THE BEST LINE IN THE NOVEL. That should’ve been Signet’s tagline.

Andrea: Finally, we agree on a line. Maidenhead makes me laugh.

Pat: Doesn’t he refer to Charlie’s virginity as his “maidenpiece”?

Andrea: Here’s another line that I liked: “All the logic of a little kid in a Halloween cowboy suit with his guts and his treat or treat candy spread all over a mile of I-95.”

Pat: Where’s that?

Andrea: It is in the part where he talks about the line between light and dark—the terminator.

Pat: Really mucked that part up that James Cameron ruined the phrase forever.

Andrea: Yeah. No one is ever going to be able to read that again without thinking of Ahnold, who, coincidentally, was in the movie of The Running Man.

Charlie Decker And The Whores Of Algebra
Pat: I was wondering what you think about how he portrayed the girls

Andrea: I feel like Stephen King likes kinda slutty girls.

Pat: Who doesn’t like slutty girls?

Andrea: Example: “Grace was attractive in a way that attracted the shop course boys. The second best line: “My mother fucks and I love her.”

Andrea: At this point in his career, he seems to have two ways that he portrays women. Wait, three.

Pat: Demure slut-in-waiting, dork, fiesty slut apparent.

Andrea: Horrible warty toad, hideously ugly virgin: Carrie White, Irma what’s-her-face in this book. Kinda slutty and trashy: Grace in this book and Ruthie in Salem’s Lot. Sexy good girl: Susan in Salem’s Lot, the white-panties girl here.

Pat: Sandy Cross

Andrea: Do you agree? Right. Those seem to be his three prototypes at this point. For women under 50, anyway.

Pat: Yeah, there’s also gasbag gossiper.

Andrea: Later on he adds Resilient Strong Wife. The flipside that coin is the Whiny Ineffectual Wife—as we will see in The Shining. Or maybe I am just remembering that from the movie. Rage is one of the rare books where we won’t get to talk about the movie.

Pat: Overprotective Mother. But they seem to blend together from the stereotypes they embody

Andrea: So, I mean, all the women clearly fall into those templates, but I liked the way their stories were portrayed in this book. Especially Sandy’s—was she the roller rink girl? I loved that one. It was super vivid and felt realistic.

Pat: You’re making it sound like he’s just covering every facet of characterization.

Andrea: I know, but he has SO MANY women characters and they all fall into like 5 slots. I could be wrong. And just drawing from the ones we’ve read so far and the ones I remember best.

Pat: So I’m wondering if the way he portrayed them initially was to keep in line with the way everyone views each other in high school. The dirty kid, the slut, the nutjob, the jock, the princess, the geek. You’re right, it is The Breakfast Club, sort of. Or The Breakfast Club is sort of Rage

Andrea: I know, I am always right. They have this experience and get to know each other in an intimate way. But if they met on Monday morning they still wouldn’t say hi to each other. The part when they are trying to get Carol to talk about sex is so like when they are trying to get Claire to admit she is a virgin in TBC. The Grace/Irma slapfight reminded me of this thing that happened when I was a peer mediator—which was clearly something I did just to get out of class. So we were mediating these two girls, and I asked what they were fighting about, and one of them was like “HER MAMA CALLED MY MAMA A WHORE AT THE DOLLAR STORE.”

Pat: So you’re saying it’s accurate

Andrea: Yes.

Pat: You think that on Monday, Irma and Grace would still treat each other the same?

Andrea: I think they would steer clear. Remember how Charlie says that Irma sneaks a cucumber out of the fridge in the wee hours of the night. Another thing that I don’t believe anyone really does. Am I naive?

Pat: Just because he said it doesn’t mean she actually ever did it!

Andrea: DUH.

Pat: I don’t have anywhere to put a cucumber, so I really don’t know. Again, I think anything people have thought up has been done. What about that whore Carol?

Andrea: I loved Carol’s sex story.

Pat: Does anyone roller skate anymore?

Andrea: I don’t know. I don’t think so, but the roller rink is a den of iniquity.

Pat: Since you’re up King’s ass about the by-the-numbers females, do you think the male characters any more varied?

Andrea: I don’t know. We already know that he uses a lot of writers. What do you think?

Pat: I’m not really concerned with who fits into which of however many types there are. I’ll draw lines back to other characters, but as long as they’re interesting—which I don’t think we’re arguing that they’re not—I don’t care much

Andrea: Agreed. I thought the female characters in this book were pretty interesting, archetypical or not. Same with the men.

Pat: I really liked Pigpen. He seems to be the first one to break. Not to break, really, but to open up. He does it so effortlessly, like it’s been on the surface forever.

Andrea: His mom is the one who enters all the contests, right? And serves on all the boards? She was another of King’s classic small town busybodies.

Pat: That’s right. Busybody to the core. And buys Be-Bop pencils that never sharpen. Which I think might have been a good analogue for Pig Pen, who has been grinded and grinded like Charlie, but who has never sharpened to a point because of it.

Andrea: The attack on Ted part at the end made me viscerally uncomfortable for some reason

Pat: It was ugly, but I think that was the point. So much of the damage and evil kids do to each other is psychological. Seeing it manifest was necessarily disturbing

Andrea: Because, they didn’t really do anything THAT bad to him. But at the same time it was horrible.

Pat: They humiliated him, which was the one thing Ted had done his best to avoid his entire life. Hiding his alcoholic mother, his tryst with Sandy.

Andrea: How about when Charlie is talking about the Sandy wearing the “perfect pair” of white panties, and then says “none of that New York shit”? Do all women in New York wear black underwear? Please advise.

Pat: As soon as I’ve seen a good cross-section of New York women’s underpants, I’ll let you know.

Bad Comparisons And Phallic Names
Andrea: So we already talked about the parallels with Catcher and The Breakfast Club; the other really obvious one especially toward the end is Lord Of The Flies.

Pat: I’m not sure how well I think it relates to Lord Of The Flies.

Andrea: Why not? They all turn on Ted just like they all turned on Piggy.

Pat: Right, except Piggy and Ted are polar opposites. If Ted was anyone, he was Jack.

Andrea: Right. So is it like Lord Of The Flies would be if Piggy had turned on Jack?

Pat: If it were, perhaps, an island of Piggies.

Andrea: Did the fight between Charlie and Dicky remind you of when you fought that kid at the Valentine’s dance in middle school?

Pat: Not at all, but the whole suit debacle reminded me immediately of getting dressed for the dance—maybe not even that specific dance—pulling up at the middle school with my mom and panicking because no one else was in a button down shirt with a tie.

Stephen King Versus The Absentee Parents Of The World
Andrea: Did you think it was weird that he beat the shit out of a teacher and yet was still in school? I mean, were things that different in the 70s?

Pat: Willful suspension of disbelief, I guess. I have no idea, I wasn’t in the 70s educational system anymore than you were.

Andrea: I guess it was before zero tolerance

Pat: Do you think King should have this pulled it from publication? It’s a great story, all told, and for those teenagers without already-cracked minds, it would probably be illuminating. It was for me.

Andrea: I don’t know if it was illuminating for me, partially because there is not much for a teenage girl to connect with. I don’t see what pulling it from publication would have done though. Art doesn’t make school shooters in my opinion. They would have done it anyway, or something else.

Pat: Not only that, but there are actual stories about school shootings readily available. Maybe in 1996, you pull this from publication, fewer kids would have access to those stories because not everyone had the internet. But now if you want school shootings, you can read about them.

Andrea: I don’t think there are that many high school kids mining King’s back catalog right now, though I could be wrong. I don’t know many high school kids—certainly none of my SAT students ever mentioned him when I asked what they were reading.

Pat: But it is kind of ridiculous to think that Stephen King put a book out of print. Ideally, these kids would have parents who wouldn’t allow them to read it.

Andrea: Regardless, even if they are reading it, it’s not going to spark anyone into a school shooting. Did your mom not allow you to read anything? Mine sure didn’t.

Pat: She knew I wasn’t a homicidal maniac.

Andrea: I don’t think homicidal maniac’s parents always know it though.

Pat: She certainly monitored what I read and watched to a certain extent. She was engaged in my life. These parents weren’t.

Andrea: Have you read Columbine, by Dave Cullen? Much of it is about how Eric Harris’s parents are in total denial.

Pat: Right, which has nothing to do with media’s responsibility. It has to do with parental responsibility. Now King, as a parent, is more responsible than the parents themselves for taking the book out of circulation. But I’d argue that kids whose parents let them read or whatever are going to shoot or not shoot up a school regardless of a 170-page book.

Andrea: I don’t think media has a responsibility for self-regulation. I think it is all on the parents.

Pat: I wonder where he stands on gun control. You’d think he’d advocate for stricter gun control since, you know, you can’t shoot your teacher if you don’t have a gun. Or he could’ve just kept the original title of Getting It On. No one would ever have used it in a school shooting. They’d have been too embarrassed.

Andrea: Did anyone actually ever use it in a school shooting? Or was King just afraid they might?

Pat: It was found in a kid’s locker in one case. Another shooter had read it, at least. He pulled it from publication after a shooting in 1997, which was the fourth related shooting, I think.

Having Full Gotten It On
Andrea: That’s the end of my notes. I have the sneaking suspicion you did not take notes.

Pat: I never take notes. Neither did Charlie Decker.