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“In a World That Has Moved On…” The Dark Tower Book I: The Gunslinger

August 20th, 2010
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The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

So opens book one of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger. It’s a terrific opening line, and the rest of the story that follows ain’t too shabby, either.

The titular gunslinger is Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger in a world that has moved on. When we meet him, he has been on the trail of the mysterious man in black for many years. We don’t know who exactly this man in black is, or what exactly he did that caused Roland to begin his lengthy pursuit, or just what happened to Roland’s former and the rest of the gunslingers that left him the last. (Those answers, one hopes, lie in the later books in the series.)

We are given many hints – small fragments of information as Roland recounts moments from his youth. Here is where I really appreciated having read Marvel Comics’ Dark Tower prequel comic book series (which began with The Gunslinger Born), before beginning this novel. I got to know the world of Roland’s youth through those mini-series, so when he refers to Cort or to Alain in the novel, those references have great weight and meaning to me, and I’m able to place images (Jae Lee’s beautifully illustrated images) to those names, names which wouldn’t have meant nearly as much to me had I been reading this novel cold. These glimpses into Roland’s past were some of my favorite parts of the novel, and I found myself eagerly anticipating the later installments that will further flesh out Roland’s back-story (particularly, from what I’ve heard, book four: Wizard and Glass). It will be interesting to see how well what we learn in those later books matches with the comic book series.

The Gunslinger is a very short book – by far the shortest of the Dark Tower series. It’s a quick, engaging read. The story, while entertaining, is pretty slight. Many intriguing characters are introduced and questions are raised, but we’re given precious few answers. The back-story that we’re given to the situations and characters in the novel is sketchy at best. Those hints, scattered like crumbs throughout the narrative, are extremely intriguing, and the sense of mystery that pervades the story definitely draws the reader into the tale and makes one want to read more. But The Gunslinger is barely a story. It reminds me of one of the cliffhanger episodes of The X-Files, when in part one we’d see all sorts of intriguing and mysterious goings-on that would definitely capture an audience’s interest.Yet it would be near-impossible to figure out what was actually happening, because we didn’t yet have any context for the events being witnessed. We’d see mysterious characters doing mysterious things, without knowing who they were or what they were doing or why they were doing those things.

That is the best description I can muster for The Gunslinger. I can only imagine what readers must have made of it when it was first released back in 1978. For me, knowing that this is just part one of a lengthy seven-book saga, I didn’t find the lack of clarity frustrating at all. Weird, perhaps, but not frustrating. It just made me want to waste no time in moving on to the next book in the series.

Well, OK, there was one point where the lack of clarity bugged me. SPOILERS AHEAD here, gang, so beware.

I found the scene where Jake meets his fate to be very confusing. This should be the climactic moment of the novel, as Roland is forced to choose between saving his companion Jake or finally catching up to the elusive man in black. But I found the power of that sequence tremendously undercut by the vagueness of the prose. I had to re-read those pages several times, and I still didn’t quite have a clear idea of what went down. I believe there are some things that Mr. King was deliberately trying to keep vague for the audience, but for me he took that too far.

Specifically, there are two lines of dialogue – “Then I shall leave you.” “No, you shall NOT!” – for which the speaker is not identified. This, to me, muddies the sequence in an unfortunate manner. At first I thought the first line was spoken by Jake. He thinks Roland is going to abandon him. When Roland cries “No, you shall NOT!” I thought that meant that he had chosen to try to save Jake. But the later scenes in the book with the man in black (as well as passages in books two and three of the series, which I’m reading now) seem to indicate that Roland felt terrible guilt over his decision to let Jake die so that he could catch the man in black. So I guess that means that the line “Then I shall leave you” was spoken not by Jake but by the man in black, and Roland’s declaration “No, you shall NOT!” was him choosing to pursue the MIB, even at the cost of Jake’s life.

I understand that great literature doesn’t always have to spell everything out for the audience – but still, I would have appreciated a little more clarity to this sequence, which is probably the key sequence in the entire novel.

But enough of my quibbles. I’m so glad to have finally begun The Dark Tower series! I devoured The Gunslinger in short order and, without wasting any time, moved on to Book Two: The Drawing of the Three. I’ll be back here with my thoughts on that novel soon!

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