Stephen King’s superb new stay-up-all-night thriller, “Finders Keepers,” is a sly, often poignant tale of literary obsession that recalls the themes of his classic 1987 novel “Misery.”
At the center of this story is John Rothstein, a novelist whom Time magazine once crowned “America’s Reclusive Genius.” His best-selling trilogy — “The Runner,” “The Runner Sees Action” and “The Runner Slows Down,” is considered “the Iliad of postwar America.”
When the teenage Morris Bellamy reads the first two books, he falls in love with their antihero, Jimmy Gold, “an American icon of despair in a land of plenty.” But Morris finds the third novel, in which the protagonist settles down and takes a job in advertising, a sell-out and an unforgivable betrayal. A smart, deeply troubled kid who’s already done time in juvie, Morris hatches a plan to break into Rothstein’s New Hampshire farmhouse. His hope is to find the new Jimmy Gold novel that Rothstein is rumored to have written since retiring from public view. But when Morris’s plan goes disastrously wrong, he ends up, at age 23, sentenced to life in prison.
That’s where the fun begins — for the reader, if not for Morris Bellamy.
More than three decades later, another teenage boy, Pete Saubers, is living with his family in the same house that had once been Morris’s childhood home. Like Morris, Pete is in thrall of the Jimmy Gold novels, though he has other things on his mind. His family is struggling to get by after his father was injured when a madman plowed a Mercedes though a crowd waiting in line for a job fair. King fans will recognize that tragedy as the seminal event in his novel “Mr. Mercedes” (a much less enjoyable book than this one). They’ll also recognize several characters from that novel, including retired police detective Bill Hodges, now a private investigator. After Pete discovers the trunk with Rothstein’s stolen notes, King begins to weave this web of characters, coincidence and connections with dizzying speed and dazzling facility.
“Finders Keepers” — the second in a planned trilogy — may be a twisted love story, but it’s also a love letter to the joys of reading and to American literature. Rothstein’s books evoke Updike’s Rabbit novels, as well as works by J.D. Salinger, John Cheever and Richard Yates . Pete reads D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner” and realizes too late its lesson that “money from nowhere almost always spells trouble.” And Pete’s favorite English teacher mentions Theodore Roethke’s sublime “The Waking.” That poem’s most famous line — “I learn by going where I have to go” — could serve as a mantra for Pete, who at every step must make life-altering decisions about Rothstein’s literary legacy, his family’s financial well-being and his own survival. In one sense, sweet-natured Pete is not so different from vicious Morris: Both, “although at opposite ends of the age-spectrum, are very much alike when it comes to the Rothstein notebooks. They lust for what is inside them.”Near the end, one of Rothstein’s many fans muses, “I was going to say his work changed my life, but that’s not right. . . . I guess what I mean is his work changed my heart.”
Readers of the wonderful, scary, moving “Finders Keepers” will feel the same way.
Hand’s short novel “Wylding Hall” will be published this summer.
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Originally posted on WashingtonPost.com.