The Waste Lands – The Dark Tower III (1991)
by Stephen King

The third installment in Stephen King's Dark Tower series is a significant step up from the second volume, but that's pretty much a given. It would be hard to write a book even remotely as bad as The Drawing of the Three.

The Waste Lands buries a pretty gripping narrative deep inside an almost obsessive silliness, perhaps illustrated best by the use of ZZ Top's "Velcro Fly" as the single sound of a postapocalyptic cityscape … you get the sense of King sitting in his writing space, bored and flattened with drug withdrawal, grasping around at whatever is nearby for plot-points. "Hm, I want to do a Mad Max kind of thing, and it needs a really primal soundtrack. Oh yeah, the intro of "Velcro Fly" would totally be the sound of a futuristic wasteland!"

The book begins with a fight between our heroes and a giant robotic bear, and ends with one between the gunslingers and a riddle-spewing monorail! In between, King develops a story that alternates real suspense with his usual obsession with childhood, with comic-book dialogue that wouldn't pass muster at even the lowest-level DC pitch meeting.

To enjoy King, you have to allow that he is writing for the folks who will read his every word, no matter what. And with The Dark Tower, he is attempting to leave behind his own Lord of the Rings, an epic story informed by his other books and completely reliant on his faithful readers' willingness to let him do his thing. If you try to read these books as literature, you will inevitably conclude that they are utter dreck, but if you read them as Stephen King books, and simply ignore the incessant comic relief and hackwork prose, they are pretty enjoyable.

King has undeniably created his own Middle-Earth with these books, for better and worse. While he can't bring himself to really go out on a limb, he has an undeniable knack for making you care about the fate of Roland the Gunslinger and his misfit posse of do-gooders. As with most of his books, King's laziness is in full effect, as in a reference to Shirley Jackson's The Lottery that endeavors to disguise the fact that he's simply ripping off his source material, as if crediting the source makes a difference. King comes off as the precocious writer/artist in everyone's high school who can wow you with a rippin' tale that keeps you coming back for more. In high school, these kids were almost impossibly cool, but reading the books years beyond college, you'll find much disappointment that King never bothers to aspire to greatness, instead trading on the accepted notion that his readers are already with him.

King is great at what he does. But he is also incredibly crowd-pleasing, ending every chapter with a "hook" and occasionally even spending time summarizing what has happened, in case you failed to be amazed by any of his tricks. When I read him, I find myself in a perpetual state of admiration mingled with contempt, wanting to personally call him up and tell him he doesn't need to pander, he doesn't need to make it easy for the reader.

But you don't become the world's best-selling author by following your pure artistic muse … and though it's clear that King is capable of writing the Great American Novel, his stubborn refusal to do so is in some respects totally cool. So, unless the book is complete drug-addled horseshit, I give him some leeway.

The strength of The Waste Lands is in its ability to consistently keep the thrill-factor high … as jaded as I am about his work, I couldn't help but feel myself rooting for the gunslingers, and even gasping for breath when they met with peril. So my approach to reading The Waste Lands was to just let King be King, because I'd rather suffer through some bullshit exposition than not be delivered the glorious heart-pump of the good parts.

Even so, even the good parts of The Waste Lands are bound to such a maddening populist sensibility that I had to stop pretty frequently just to keep from cringing. I understand that King's willful anti-pretentiousness is a cornerstone of his success, but I really wanted him to stop providing lame jokes to deflate his conceits, and to just go with it after awhile.

He places most of the comic relief into the mouth of Eddie, the tough-talkin' sensitive guy we met in The Drawing of the Three, and while I identify with the character and appreciate his view on the strange world in which he now lives, I found his endless joking to be forced and unnecessary. Worse is the re-introduction of Jake (from the first novel) as the newest member of the gunslingin' posse … as with all of King's young boy protagonists, Jake is crammed full of King's own interests and knowledge. King is at his best when writing about precocious young boys like he was, and the depiction of Jake in his actual life is really good reading. Once Jake joins Roland & Crew, it gets dodgier. When the gunslingers encounter a mysterious downed aircraft, Jake is able to specifically identify its make and model, having done a school report on WWII aircraft recently. Maybe King, and his boy heroes, simply have great memories, but I don't remember jack shit about almost anything I ever wrote about in school.

These contrivances are the weakness of the book … as well as simply distasteful shit like introducing Oy, a squirrel-like sidekick who is Toto to Jake's Dorothy. I'm all for animals being taken seriously as main characters, but this just smacked of lowbrow pandering.

The book builds toward a powerful climax, boosted by the sudden threat of Jake's kidnapping by an urban pirate who wants to rape him, but winds its way toward a low-grade Tolkien plot point involving the quizzical monorail testing the gunslingers on prime numbers! The attitude of the book is encapsulated by one of Eddie's typically unrealistic statements:

"What we're looking at is a lunatic genius ghost-in-the-computer monorail that likes riddles and goes faster than the speed of sound. Welcome to the fantasy version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

And at one point, a powerful evil wizard/Satan-figure says: "Close enough for government work," and does the "You can call me Ray" routine. If you can grant Stephen King these unfortunate liberties, The Waste Lands offers plenty of page-turnin' intrigue … if not, you best be on to an author who doesn't turn away from his/her God-given talent so egregiously.

Review by Chocolate Stewart