By Tom De Haven
Updated September 17, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Funny thing about Stephen King. He’s one of the best-known writers on the planet, a writer so prolific that it takes at least two shelves — two long shelves — to hold his books, and yet millions of readers continue to think of him in a neighborly way, as somebody they almost know or as a relative once or twice removed whom they hear from every year or so. He’s famous, but he’s not a mega-celebrity. He’s, well, a guy we just like.

I was thinking about this recently after a bookstore owner told me how dozens of his customers had spontaneously shot off get-well cards to King following his recent accident, after he’d told me that he’d mailed a card himself and after I’d said I’d done the same thing. (See? Book reviewers aren’t always cruel.)

But it’s not just King’s stories and their often indelible moments (girl at the prom, giant in the electric chair, maniac in a snowbound hotel) that explain his tight connection to readers. It’s the man’s uncanny talent for carefully rendering everyday life — from its relentless pop music and bowls of soggy breakfast cereal to its car dealerships and lost-pet signs — and then, to put it in his own words, infusing the mundane with ”that breathless sense of magic, that sense of the world as a thin veneer stretched over something else, something both brighter and darker.” Sounds right, feels right, so we respond, with gratitude.

King’s fine new book might illustrate that primary effect better than anything else he’s written. A novel in five stories, with players sometimes migrating from one story to the next, Hearts in Atlantis uses the 1960s as memory and metaphor to both decode and make mysterious American life in the ’90s. And while it’s usually hazardous, if not a real blunder, to assume that we detect the author’s sentiments in the words of a particular character, there’s an impassioned speech delivered here by a 50ish baby boomer that’s nearly impossible not to take as coming straight from King: ”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. The only generation even close to us in pure, selfish self-indulgence is the so-called Lost Generation of the twenties, and at least most of them had the decency to stay drunk. We couldn’t even do that.”

If you’re beginning to get the idea that there’s more heartbreak than horror in these pages, and a doomy aura that’s more generational than occult, you’re right — although the first story, ”Low Men in Yellow Coats,” is a knockout piece of traditional spookery. In 1960, fatherless Bobby Garfield, age 11, meets and befriends a creaky, white-haired stranger named Ted Brautigan, who has rented the apartment upstairs. Ted, Bobby soon discovers, is not only endowed with ESP, he’s also on the run from a posse of otherworldly bounty hunters.

While the ”low men” (who communicate with one another by draping kite tails over telephone poles and chalking half-moons and stars beside hopscotch patterns) invade the small Connecticut town of Harwich, Ted introduces Bobby to the benign satisfactions and outright terrors of the grown-up world. An homage to Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes, the tale serves as a thematic prologue (small heroisms have surprisingly large repercussions, and cowardice kills) to the four stories that follow.

Set at the University of Maine in 1966, ”Hearts in Atlantis” focuses on Bobby Garfield’s childhood sweetheart, Carol Gerber, and pinpoints the historical moment when Vietnam began to radicalize a generation. Jumping ahead to 1983, ”Blind Willie” is a bizarre exploration of war guilt, and the daily penance practiced on the streets of New York by a Vietnam vet — who happens to be Bobby and Carol’s former nemesis. ”Why We’re in Vietnam” and ”Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling,” both set in 1999, segue subtly from realism to fantasy, but despite a ghost who placidly haunts Bobby Garfield’s long-lost best friend and the magical reappearance of Bobby’s baseball glove after nearly four decades, these last two stories are drenched in sadness, mortality, regret, and finally absolution.

This is wonderful fiction by that guy we just like, a lot. A

Hearts in Atlantis

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 101 minutes
  • Scott Hicks