JULY 3, 2015
STEPHEN KING’s Finders Keepers is the second book in a planned trilogy featuring a retired police detective, Kermit William “Bill” Hodges, and his assistants: Jerome Robinson, a young African-American Harvard student who often performs a black caricature he calls “Tyrone Feelgood Delight” (this routine often involves calling Bill “Massa Hodges” to provide somewhat uncomfortable comedic relief), and Holly Gibney, a middle-aged anxiety-ridden woman who exhibits surprising strength of body and mind at opportune times. As a follow-up to the 2014 novel Mr. Mercedes and a precursor to the planned 2016 novel End of Watch (in which one can anticipate supernatural elements based upon the ending of Finders Keepers), the novel appeals to the general expectation of King’s Constant Reader when Jerome exclaims, “The band’s back together.” This suggests that readers who have previously read Mr. Mercedes are rewarded with a tale that brings back familiar characters and a similar sense of hard-boiled mystery and suspense that was (generally) found in the first book. Although one might expect the promise of this trio’s new mystery-adventure to be the core of this novel, the recurring characters do not appear until a third of the novel is complete, suggesting that there are other important matters afoot.
At the core of the narrative, there is a new and intriguing plot: an obsessive fan named Morris Bellamy murders a famous (fictional) author named John Rothstein and stashes Rothstein’s unpublished work, which is eventually found by a young boy named Pete Saubers while Morris is imprisoned for a different crime. This storyline alone could bring new readers into the trilogy, as King adeptly prompts his reader to want to know what happens next, making the novel a pleasant, suspenseful, but also leisurely read. Story particularities aside, however, the growing scope of this trilogy speaks to King’s epic imagination. Indeed, although King rarely crafts a novel less than 400 pages long, his Constant Reader is actually often asked to do quite a bit of work while reading, since King often resists the temptation to burden the reader with excessive detail and description: King has admitted that he often scales back descriptions of his characters in the belief that the reader will ultimately use his or her imagination to fill in the gaps. This particular theme of imaginative engagement (and the parallel theme of imaginative disengagement) plays a critical role in Finders Keepers.
Among King’s various themes, failure — especially failure of imagination — tends to have a consistent presence within his writing. In his first book, Carrie, King describes how Carrie White’s classmates fail to be civil people, suggesting a deadly failure to imagine what life is like in Carrie’s shoes. King writes of similar failures in his 2014 novel Revival, as the reverend Charles Jacobs fails to find comfort and solace in religion after losing his family, and then fails to imagine the dangerous possibilities that his obsessive studies with life and death may yield. King’s obsession with failure (and the failure of imagination) seems to be part of a conversation that he establishes with his readers — one that may be at times uncomfortable or even hostile. Indeed, King has offered somewhat biting criticism toward how his Constant Readers approach a text with little imagination. This is particularly the case in the epilogue of The Colorado Kid, a “hard-boiled” mystery with no real resolution, in which King tells his reader, “If you tell me I fell down on the job and didn’t tell all of this story there was to tell, I say you’re all wrong.” In a sense, this is an indication that King requires, if not demands, a certain level of investment and imaginative engagement on behalf of his reader, and this evocation of the need for literary imagination actually forms a good portion of the narrative background for Finders Keepers.
For example, the first several pages of Finders Keepers provide a scene in which the troubled and delusional Morris Bellamy tracks down the aforementioned John Rothstein with the hope of robbing a cache of notebooks that Rothstein has reportedly authored during his 18-year hiatus from writing. The anticipated treasure of Rothstein’s lost writing (which proves to be real) excites Morris, as he imagines that he might discover that the story of his favorite fictional character from Rothstein’s imagination is not finished. He also fantasizes that he (Morris) would become a legend (at least in his own mind) as the first and perhaps only one to read Rothstein’s unpublished work. Both of these imaginings ultimately reflect a critical failure on behalf of Morris as both a reader and as an individual.
To clarify, Morris believes that the main character of Rothstein’s cornerstone text The Runner, Jimmy Gold, is an acute reflection of Morris — a rebellious, misunderstood individual in the mold of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye — and he is severely disappointed when Rothstein ends his trilogy with Gold settling down with a wife and kids in the suburbs. Morris is unable to imagine that people change, even temporarily, and this failure of his imagination is highlighted early in the text. In one sense, Morris does not realize that he can imagine any future for Jimmy Gold that he wants, or that what Rothstein writes in the Jimmy Gold trilogy is not a decision that Rothstein, as the author, is necessarily even responsible for. As Morris’s mother tells him, “A good novelist does not create events, he watches them happen and then writes down what he sees. A good novelist realizes he is a secretary, not God.” While this line could easily be seen as a cop-out for King — a declaration that he is not to blame for any shortcomings in his writings because he simply reports what he sees in his mind’s eye — a more reasonable interpretation (one that is lost upon Morris) is that he, as the reader, has some say in how a story plays out, that one’s imagination and desire to “unpack” a text does not happen when plot or characters are spoon-fed to the reader.
Further, after Morris murders Rothstein by shooting him in the head, he is unprepared for the aftermath of his actions, and this provides a metaphor for the reader regarding the dangers of a limited imagination. As King writes,
Morris wasn’t shocked, exactly, but he was certainly amazed. He had expected some blood, and a hole between the eyes, but not this gaudy expectoration of gristle and bone. It was a failure of imagination, he supposed, the reason why he could read the giants of modern American literature — read them and appreciate them — but never be one.
King deploys sharp irony here, suggesting that a limited imagination in the realm of fatal violence keeps an individual from becoming a great literary writer, but what is also revealing is that Morris believes that his limited imagination poses no problems for him as a reader. Indeed, such arrogance blinds Morris to his shortcomings, and a similar sense of arrogance, or expectation, on behalf of the reader is painted as a dangerous trait.
Of course, there is much more to Finders Keepers than King’s attempts at literary criticism or philosophy. For some, this text is part Misery — Morris Bellamy is to John Rothstein as Annie Wilkes is to Paul Sheldon: both take the role of “number one fan” (which is part of Morris’s dangerous obsession and twisted imagination). For other readers, the text might evoke “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” since Morris’s literary treasure is what keeps him sane and motivated while he is locked away in prison, much in the same way that Andy Dufresne survives prison life with the hope that a new identity and freedom await him outside the walls of Shawshank. Finders Keepers could also be seen as a “reboot” of Lisey’s Story as Morris’s obsession with Rothstein is eerily similar to the deadly obsession that Jim Dooley has for Scott Landon’s lost writings.
All in all, Finders Keepers is ultimately a bridge novel in the middle of a trilogy, and King seems to be much more invested in the villain of Mr. Mercedes, Brady Hartsfield, than the antagonist of Finders Keepers, Morris Bellamy. In this second book of the “Bill Hodges Trilogy,” Brady is found residing in a mental hospital (specifically Room 217 — a number fans of The Shining will recognize), and Bill makes a handful of visits to Brady, often displaying a sense of anger and distrust for Brady’s semicomatose state. Of course, any reader who is new to Finders Keepers would be confused as to why Bill is so focused on visiting this character, much less why Bill is antagonistic toward him. Previous readers, though, will remember that Brady rigged a car bomb that killed Bill’s love interest in Mr. Mercedes. In short, while King himself displays a minor failure of imagination (in that he does not necessarily anticipate new readers for Finders Keepers and thus skips much necessary context), the larger failure of imagination centers on Brady and the characters who believe that he is no longer a danger to society because, on the surface, he whittles away his time in the mental hospital staring either out the window or at the lively screen of a game demo on his e-reader. At the end of the novel, however, it appears that Brady is just as dangerous as ever, suggesting that a failure to imagine the worst can be devastating.
Ultimately, with the promise of King’s more expected genre — supernatural horror — on the horizon, Finders Keepers is a bridge that the Constant Reader will want to cross. However, the journey is not as easy as placing one foot in front of the other, or, rather, merely turning the pages. To be sure, King seems to have fun with his writing, and he hopes that his readers will find pleasure within his writing as well (he says as much in the afterword, perhaps as sort of an apology). To reduce the experience of reading a King novel to simple enjoyment, though, is most definitely a failure in imagination, and such a failure is perhaps one of the worst kinds there is.