The bestseller, like its much more expensive cousin, the blockbuster movie, is a poorly understood phenomenon. Publishers have been trying and failing to consistently produce them ever since shortly after Gutenberg went all in on the Word of God. An editor may be certain he detects a bestsellerish je ne sais quoi in an author to whom he extends a six-figure advance, but confirmation of his hunch is available only after the fact.
In the uncertain high-middlebrow realm, Stephen King stands alone. He’s sold a book for every man, woman and child in the United States, in a half-dozen genres. He’s even acquired grudging respect from the literary establishment, as the professors who disdained him die off and are replaced by younger academics who grew up reading him.
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His latest is Finders Keepers, the second book in a crime thriller trilogy-to-be that began with Mr. Mercedes. The book returns to a theme that King first explored in his 1987 novel Misery: the sometimes-toxic relationship between readers and the writers that entertain them. In New Hampshire, the novelist John Rothstein (a fictionalized combination of Salinger, Updike, and Roth) lives in seclusion, isolated by his past literary success. He spends his days hoarding money and writing, until his solitude comes to a brutal and abrupt end when Morris Bellamy, a petty criminal obsessed with Rothstein’s books, murders and robs him. Bellamy gets away with the cash, but in the course of the crime finds something even more valuable: hundreds of black notebooks containing the long-awaited sequels to the trilogy that made Rothstein famous.
After the robbery, Bellamy returns to his mother’s house, located in a "filthy little city that residents called the gem of the Great Lakes," and buries the books along with the money. But when he boasts of the crime to a shady bookseller, the bookseller castigates him, and refuses to help sell the novels. The encounter sends Bellamy into an alcoholic tailspin. He wakes up in jail, not for the crime of murdering Rothstein, but for an attempted rape he committed while drunk. For this, he is sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. The victim works diligently for three decades to ensure he serves out most of his sentence.
The crime and its punishment are a set-up to the main plot, which begins in 2009 and deals with the Saubers, a family in the grips of the Great Recession. The son, Pete, discovers the notebooks and the money, using the latter to improve his family’s circumstances. Pete, in a mirror image of the villain, is elevated rather than entrapped by reading Rothstein’s work. Eventually Bellamy gets out, and he’s not at all pleased that someone else has read the books and stolen the money that he killed for. The ensuing conflict between the two enmeshes Bill Hodges, the police detective from Mr. Mercedes, as well as his assistants Holly and Jerome, a black Harvard attendee who occasionally lapses into a cringe-inducing ethnic patois. (Jerome’s appearances are mercifully brief.)
King has written many, many suspenseful plots, and Finders Keepers is no exception. The tense, freighted maneuvering between Bellamy, Pete, and Hodges is compulsively readable, though ultimately a little disappointing. At times the old master’s prose seems too smooth; the voices of the characters no longer speak in the odd, pungent idioms of bourgeois boomer America. One of King’s favorites, ("ten pounds of [excrement] in a nine-pound bag") makes an appearance, but it only highlights the blandness of prose around it.
Finders Keepers entertains but doesn’t enthrall. King brings it to a satisfying conclusion, setting up the next installment of the trilogy with panache. It’s a fine piece of commercial fiction, and perfect summer reading. But for anyone familiar with King’s earlier output, the novel lacks a certain indefinable element, a je ne sais quoi. Its bestseller status, however, is assured.