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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 14, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Stock Car Racing and Stephen King's Buick

This past Sunday afternoon it was raining heavily and traffic on I-85 heading into Charlotte was down to a crawl. It seemed likely that there had been an accident, and my wife had only twenty minutes till her meeting.

So we got off the freeway and hopped over to 29.

At Concord.

On Sunday afternoon.

What were we thinking?

Because US 29 slides right by a huge NASCAR track, and it was race day.

Traffic control was so good that we were scarcely delayed at all. Still, we had a good chance to see what it was like as we drove past the enormous stadium.

Cars were parked everywhere, all up and down the highway.

People who had dressed for summer were walking in the chilly rain without a sign that it bothered them.

Vendors were selling treats and souvenirs out of tents and trailers and shops.

RVs and vacation trailers were packed together in one big lot, and tailgate parties abounded in another.

There were hundreds and hundreds of people, all having a good time ... and spending money.

I've seen the stadiums in St. Louis and Cincinnati and New Orleans and Houston and Atlanta and San Francisco and Kansas City and Seattle and you know what?

I never saw such a huge, happy crowd of people as I saw outside the race track in Concord.

Greensboro doesn't need another baseball stadium -- we have one.

What Greensboro needs is a bigtime NASCAR track.

I say we tear out sixteen blocks of downtown -- it's all just lawyers and bankers down there now anyway -- and put up the Pebble Beach of NASCAR tracks.

We can call it the Jim Melvin Track and he can launch it by dragging a bottle of champagne around the track in a limo. Then we sit back and watch Greensboro's downtown come to life. At least on race day.

*

And while we're waiting for NASCAR to put Greensboro's new racetrack on their schedule, we can watch amateur races. There's a stock car race several times each school day on the streets of Greensboro -- conducted by students from Page who drive to and from the Weaver Center.

You see, there's a trick in the timing of the lights as you head back to Page from Weaver. Heading east on Smith, the lights are timed just right so that you can get up to a pretty good speed. If you zip through the intersections the second each light turns green, you can make that left turn onto Elm just in time to make it across the next intersection before it turns red.

There's just enough time for two cars to get through. Maybe three. But of course, there are lots more than two or three drivers trying to make good time back to Page. So they jockey and pass each other and ... heck, folks, if you bring a lawn chair and set yourself down on the sidewalk along Smith or Elm right about class change time, you can see driving every bit as good -- and as fast -- as you ever see at a NASCAR track.

Not only that, but the Weaver 500 is absolutely free. All that's missing is somebody selling ice cream.

*

Sweet Home Alabama. Just about perfect in every way. Funny. Sweet. Made all the right choices. Terrific cast. Of course it's a chick flick -- but it's also great for guys who are secure enough in their manliness to enjoy a movie in which nothing blows up and nobody dies.

*

I think I just read the leading contender for 2002's "Worst Novel by a Major Author" -- From a Buick 8, by Stephen King.

This is not going to be one of those cheap attacks on Stephen King by some sneering English graduate student who thinks that because he's read Ulysses (with crib notes, of course, so he can pretend to have understood it), any author whose work is actually popular must be beneath contempt.

On the contrary -- I have long held that when future English teachers talk about the second half of the twentieth century, Stephen King will lead the list of writers who recorded -- and critiqued -- our time.

But that doesn't mean he's immune to Famous Old Author Syndrome.

The main symptom of FOAS is that as authors get older, they become more like themselves. Whatever quirks they had all along begin to intrude and finally take over the fiction.

Sadly, it's happening to Stephen King. The glibness that allowed his prose to flow like natural speech has been replaced by mere logorrhea.

From a Buick 8 is built around a pretty good premise -- a Pennsylvania Highway Patrol station "adopts" an alien artifact that becomes part of their lives for a generation.

And his theme isn't bad, either (if you have to have a theme): Even when incredibly strange and dangerous things are happening in Shed B every few weeks, life still goes on, and what happens in your family is really more important than what happens with the alien artifact.

All the incidents, characters, and ideas in this novel would have made a terrific novella of about 20,000 words.

But nooooo. King has now cut himself loose from all restraint. If he thinks of something, it's going to get written down. Even if he already wrote it down a few pages ago. And a few pages before that.

The whole thing is awkwardly structured as a story told to the son of a patrolman who, prior to his accidental death the year before, was the most avid investigator of the alien object.

A whole bunch of patrolmen take turns telling the story. Maddeningly, each one repeats swathes of what the previous ones said. But that is only the beginning.

Every time something happens, each one of these characters apparently has to be accounted for -- we get a list of who puked, who screeched, who screamed, who swore, and who nearly fainted. Whenever a character has a feeling, we have to wait while he discusses why he had that feeling, and then we have to find out how he feels about what he thought about what he felt, and then we have to get all the other characters' reactions to what he felt about what he thought about what he felt, including their thoughts and their feelings, until you begin to wish that the alien artifact had consumed them all, instead of just one or two.

And in all of this thinking and feeling, not once does anybody think or feel anything but the most obvious, predictable thought or feeling, so that when all is said and done -- and believe me, all is said and done in this book -- you still don't know squat about most of these people.

But ... if you're looking to run a highway patrol station, every single detail about your responsibilities is in this book.

Stephen King has been a marvelous chronicler of our time. He's the writer who took horror fiction out of the haunted house and put it in McDonald's where it belongs. Just because he's writing empty pages now doesn't erase the substantial work he did before.

In fact, instead of reading From a Buick 8, why not pick up The Stand or The Dead Zone or Misery and see what this giant did back when he still cared?


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