King's Buick needs tuneup

Sunday, September 29, 2002

Give this much to Stephen King: He doesn't sit on his laurels and rely on formulas.

Yes, "From a Buick 8" is about an evil car, in a manner of speaking. And yes, King trod that ground years ago with "Christine," which was engaging if mediocre. But this latest novel is different in many ways � in topic, style and in the way King chooses to tell his story.

It's a shame, then, that the story itself simply isn't that interesting.

Like many of King's novels of late, "From a Buick 8" isn't exactly what it appears to be. On the surface, it's another horror story, this one about a state police troop in rural western Pennsylvania that serves as custodian � for two decades � of an evil entity that appears to be an old Buick Roadmaster.

The enigmatic automobile does the usual things that weird things do in Stephen King stories. It snatches people in inexplicable ways. It disgorges disgusting and alarming items that in turn churn forth goo and organic matter � and beget more mysteries. It encourages examination, investigation and obsession.

More than two-thirds of "Buick" takes place in recollections � people sitting around talking � which eventually becomes maddening in a talky, David Mamet kind of way. As perspective shifts among storytellers, we begin to see the mechanics of flashback laid bare, and it grows tiresome.

At the same time, an odd thing happens: As the story moves forward, the characters come alive with texture and personality.

Sandy Dearborn, the primary narrator and the barracks commander, becomes like an old friend. His colleagues � the troopers of the fictional Statler barracks � begin to feel familiar, too. Even Curt Wilcox, a trooper who is dead when the book begins and remains so throughout, is richly imagined � much more so than his son, a mere device to push the tale forward.

Still, King seems to be trying too hard. He's clearly done his homework, yet his sense of place � almost all his other stories are set in Maine, not western Pennsylvania � is a bit off at times. And occasionally he has characters saying things in the 1980s that wouldn't become idiomatic until years later.

He can do better � and often does. The philosophizing he allows his characters to do occasionally becomes just plain annoying. And here's a criticism you don't usually hear about King: His writing, throughout much of the book, is too restrained.

Slowly, though, as the flashers-back try to make sense of what the Buick is and what it means, King assembles a memorable picture of life at a state police barracks � exceptional and mundane, in crisis and in repose. And that, ultimately, is the triumph of this particular work.

Like the car in Shed B of the Statler barracks, "From a Buick 8" proves ultimately worthy of attention � even if mediocrity in storytelling lies underneath. As usual, King's writing talent and his skill with character development win the day.

It is, in the end, much like real life: The grand tale may not say much, but the characters along the way � well, they're the ones worth remembering, aren't they?