This is the second entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my review of The Gunslinger. As a reminder, I’ll be reviewing the book on its own terms in the review; after the review concludes, I will be discussing the book’s connections to the rest of the series to come in the section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam.”
One of my least favorite tropes in sci-fi and fantasy novels is the idea of characters showing up in the “real” world. I’ve always hated that sort of “fish out of water” story, with its wacky misunderstandings, vocabulary clashes, heavy-handed moral lessons that often result, and so forth. And maybe that’s part of why I had never really liked The Drawing of the Three as much most of the other Dark Tower fans – that instinctive dislike of that genre and its shortcomings.
And so it was sort of a relief to re-read Drawing of the Three and remember how little of that element there is to the novel. Yes, Roland has a few moments where he comments on the weirdness of this “modern” world; yes, there are a few silly misunderstandings (the neon tower sign is the one that bugs me more than the others); but for the most part, The Drawing of the Three is anchored in its characters – not just Roland, but those who he is drawing – the three deeply flawed characters drawn into the orbit of our deeply flawed hero.
As he did in The Gunslinger, King populates his fantasy series with characters who inhabit a wonderfully murky, grey moral area. Even with the first figure drawn from our world, King gives us a co-dependent heroin addict who’s smuggling drugs – not exactly a standard fantasy figure. And that pattern repeats with each of the next drawings, where King gives us broken, even horrific people, and tries to give us empathy and feeling for each of them. They – along with the coldly ruthless Roland, still willing to do whatever it takes to stay alive and to succeed in his quest – are our protagonists, and it’s another sign that King’s mythic fantasy quest isn’t going to be like many others.
But what makes The Drawing of the Three a strong second entry in the series is the reminder of how great King has become at storytelling since that young, inexperienced man wrote The Gunslinger. The Drawing of the Three feels like multiple books shoved into one, mixed wildly together – there are thrillers and dramas, crime novels and fantasy worlds, all shoehorned together into a strange, alien world that doesn’t always give us answers. (Indeed, one of the best things about the book is how little explanation is there for the drawing and the mechanics that surround it.) But no matter where the story is taking us, King makes it move, constantly ratcheting up tension, shifting the stakes of the conflicts, leaving us to question what it will mean to survive and succeed. Even better, he makes the characters’ evolutions intrinsic to the plot, making the drawing part of the shaping of their lives and their destinies.
None of which is to say that The Drawing of the Three is perfect. There is absolutely no denying the weirdness and discomfort of King’s racial choices when it comes to Detta Walker; while King makes the exaggerated caricature a conscious choice and has the characters themselves comment on the awfulness of it, it doesn’t make it less distasteful. (There’s a sense that, if King were to revise this one as he did The Gunslinger, he might make more of an effort to explain exactly what has turned Detta into such a hateful stereotype – there’s an explanation there, but it’s never made concrete in this novel.) And while it’s generally a good choice to lean into the inexplicable, alien nature of the doors, the way King uses them to resolve one character’s arc/dilemma ultimately feels a bit odd and shoehorned in – again, a rare case when a tiny bit more exposition might help things out a little bit.
For all of that, though, I think I better understand The Drawing of the Three‘s appeal for so many fans. I still don’t love it the way I love the rest of the series – it feels like a transitional book, and a stage-setting one at times – but there’s little denying that after the bleak, strange atmosphere of The Gunslinger, this second book feels like momentum is building in the series, and gives us characters we can more easily identify with than our strange, stark protagonist.
“All Things Serve the Beam” (series spoilers follow)
- This one probably barely counts as a spoiler, since it’s within the first chapter, but I hated to talk about it in the review – it’s genuinely shocking that Roland gets mutilated and crippled within moments of the book opening. There’s a sense that we never actually get to see the “real” Roland at the top of his game, and that can be a bit frustrating – and it’s another reason I remember being a bit taken aback by this book. But the way King instantly makes the self-reliant, capable Roland more in need of help and assistance is a bold choice, and it makes him more open to expanding his ka-tet.
- When looking through the second door, Eddie compares Odetta’s movement to the Steadicam shots from Kubrick’s film version of The Shining. When I read this book for the first time, I thought that was an odd choice – does that mean that Eddie comes from a world where Stephen King exists, and is writing novels? Of course, that’s sort of the case, though…which makes this seemingly continuity-breaking moment a hint about the way the series is going to break the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction along the way.
- Let me just say how glad I am that Detta Walker is more or less gone after this book. That voice may be a cultured black woman steering into what a bunch of rednecks see her as, but it doesn’t make it any less awful to read. I was always constantly a bit afraid someone would read a bit out of context over my shoulder and think I was horribly, hatefully racist.
- Is there ever an explanation for the fact that Jake was pushed not by Walter, but by Jack Mort? I guess we can just assume that Jake saw a man in black and made the jump (or Roland did), but I don’t remember if it ever gets explained away in later books.
- Speaking of Mort: while his overarching connection with both of Odetta’s accidents and Jake’s accident feels like a bit much, it certainly ties into the idea of “all things serving the beam”. Yes, it could be a writer’s excuse for coincidence, but it is one of the motifs of the series. I wish he had also had a connection to Eddie, but I guess we don’t need two paradoxes going.
- Finally, it’s solid how King goes ahead and gives us the nudge that preventing Mort from killing Jake, even accidentally, will have consequences. It ties this book neatly together with the next, and sets up the return of Jake to the series. Presumably, Jake being un-killed is what the “Life” card being dealt in the Tarot deck was in reference to?