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Books: Get rid of the ghouls

Charles Shaar Murray opts for reality over fantasy
ACCORDING TO his publishers, Stephen King is the world's best- selling author as well as one of the most prolific. He's written over 30 novels since Carrie, and Hearts In Atlantis is his second this year.

Weighing in at a mere 213 pages, its immediate predecessor, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, was positively miniaturist. Its scenario - young girl lost in woods with only a radio for company - could be scribbled on a matchbook. Hearts In Atlantis, by contrast, is the traditional King doorstop, with a big subject to match: the Vietnam war as the nexus of the lives of assorted characters during the last four decades of the century.

For a man who made his name and his millions as a scare-meister, King has been at his most impressive when he chains up the ghoulies in the attic and plays to his real strengths. In the tradition of Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor, he is astonishingly good at epicting the day-to- day texture of American small-town life. His ability to enter and evoke the inner world of the child compares none too poorly with that of Dickens. His novella The Body (filmed as Stand By Me) was a tour de force in both these respects. Recently, Insomnia proved a similar point. Precisely because its opening act is so nicely written, the impact was dissipated when King dragged in supernatural horror.

The same happens in the new novel's curtain-raiser, set in 1960. The heart sinks when 11-year-old Bobby Garfield's beautifully-realised world is invaded by those self-same "low men in yellow coats". The story is powerful enough not to require their intervention. And the titular tale which follows, in which a bunch of college students in the mid-Sixties work out their attitudes to the war in a welter of all-night card games, is all the better for being played utterly straight.

Otherwise, Hearts In Atlantis is flawed only by the author's decision to exclude the reader from the point of view of one key character, a small- town sweetheart turned armed revolutionary. She is viewed only from the outside, by male characters, and her presence is thereby diminished.

Politically, King shows his hand in an Author's Message monologue he places in the mouth of a comparatively minor character. "I loathe and despise my generation - we had an opportunity to change everything. We actually did. Instead we settled for designer jeans, two tickets to Mariah Carey at Radio City Music Hall, frequent flier miles, James Cameron's Titanic, and retirement portfolios. You know the price for selling out the future? You can never really leave the past."

Hearts in Atlantis is honourable, deeply felt and almost wonderful. Maybe King should accept his own advice and, once in a while, put his own past, and his own cliches, to one side.

Hearts In Atlantis

by Stephen King

Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 17.99, 500pp