Monday, June 15, 2015

Review: The Green Mile, by Stephen King

Up front, The Green Mile feels like an unusual style for its author, Stephen King. It's a work of realism, not a work of horror, not a work of fantasy. Yet, the deeper you get into its story, the more you realize it still falls within King's whims. In this case, it's a work of magical realism. King's greatest invention is John Coffey, a simple-minded man with a supernatural power. He's a man who is much more complex and multi-faceted than he seems, and what he seems is a barely more talkative version of Hodor. That complexity isn't apparent until you climb deeper into the novel's depths, where there are plenty of surprises and shocks that more than make up for the slow climb. In some ways this is a silly novel, in other ways a marvelous, poignant tale, and in all ways it is quintessential Stephen King.

Paul Edgecombe is the main character of the story, the head prison guard at Cold Mountain Penitentiary, where those on death row wait until it is time to walk the Green Mile and meet "Old Sparky." Paul is writing this story from the vantage point of old age in a senior retirement home. He remembers fondly his friends Brutal, Dean, Harry, and the warden, Hal Moores. He remembers even more fondly his wife, Janice. There are also the prisoners whose executions he oversaw. But this cast of characters would not be complete without the Stephen King-esque villain of Percy Whitmore, a prison guard who only has this job because he has connections high up, and he is nasty in the more or less one-dimensional way a King villain is nasty.

John Coffey is the reason Paul has decided to write this "memoir" of what happened during those final months at Cold Mountain. Coffey is a giant of a black man, who always seems to have tears streaming down his eyes. He speaks and acts gently, though he looks as though he could tear somebody in half with ease. Coffey was sentenced to death for the murder of two small white girls, who he had in his arms when the police found him. He had them in his arms, crying, and repeating that he "couldn't help it." Absent DNA evidence, nothing could have proved him innocent of raping and killing those two girls. Yet, of course, we have the feeling he is innocent (I won't say whether he is or not, though most people know that answer by now). This sets up The Green Mile as a story similar, in small ways, to To Kill a Mockingbird, another story about a gentle, though large, black man accused of a crime he probably did not commit

Integral as he is, Coffey is sidetracked for much of the story. First there are two executions, one to let us know how the whole deal works, and another that has an impact on the main part of the story. This second is of a man named Delacroix, a Frenchman who killed several children. Yet this Frenchman is not portrayed as a vicious, vile man. He is a goofy, pitiful man who falls in love with a mouse, Mr. Jingles, and delights over the little tricks Mr. Jingles performs. Percy, from the start, hates Delacroix and attempts to kill the mouse. The prison guards, meanwhile, enjoy the company of Delacroix, but wish Percy was gone. Sometimes people on death row, no matter what they may have done, are more likable than those who supervise them.

Mr. Jingles is one example of the novel's silliness. Mr. Jingles is an important part of the story in the later bits, yet the attention the prison guards give him, the admiration they have for him, seems silly. Perhaps it's simply because life at Cold Mountain really is that dull. Also silly is the amount of detail King goes into describing Paul's apparently very painful urinary tract infection. We get detailed accounts of how Paul feels blazing pain when he pisses outside. Yet, I can't exactly fault King for these details. As unnecessary as the attention given to Mr. Jingles seems at the start, and unnecessary as the details of Paul's UTI feel when they happen, these things exist and happen for a reason in the book, and yes, it is necessary for Paul's UTI to be so painful. And that's part of the genius of the story, that it leaves no stones unturned and covers all of its bases.

This takes us to the magical realism aspect of the story: John Coffey. He is not just a normal man, as I said before, but a man with the power to heal. And we first see this when John heals Paul's UTI just as it is at its worst. But it's more than healing that Coffey does. He absorbs the evil right out of the illness and lets it die in the air. Illness in the novel is a form of evil. It transforms the wife of Warden Hal Moores, Melinda Moores, into a monster that spews venomous language in as mild a manner as possible. Melinda has a brain tumor, yet I doubt brain tumors really have the effect on most people that they do on Melinda. John's a savior to such people, yet his goodness is complicated in ways that the evils in the novel, such as Percy Whitmore and, later, Brad Dolan, are not complicated. That's King for you.

In the end the novel is gripping, entertaining, shocking, and touching. It's one of King's masterpieces because of its flaws. Being set at death row, its main character has plenty of time to meditate on death, and on life. These men, no matter what they did, are made human while on the walk of the green mile. This is when fear sets in, the fear that they will exist no more once they take their seat on Old Sparky. And with some of these men, it's sad to see them go, even though the reason they are there is because of some terrible crime committed. Or not committed. I'm not sure if King wrote this in a stance against capital punishment so much as it is a story about the joys, sorrows, and pains of life, and as a meditation on death. This story is just what it is - magical.

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