“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
So begins Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower series, with the book titled The Gunslinger. And as beginnings go, this one is exceptional. Regardless of how the series ends, the simple fact is that The Gunslinger is one of those rare books that capture the imagination – in both the story as well as the writing itself. Stephen King has long been criticized – with very good reason – for an overly verbose writing style. But that isn’t the case here. King has also been criticized for being unable to create a coherent long-range story (as the later books of The Dark Tower will reveal). But that isn’t the case here. In fact, if I were to recommend a single book as a representation of the best that Stephen King has to offer, I could think of nothing better than The Gunslinger, book one of the seven book Dark Tower series.
The Gunslinger is a mixture of fantasy and western styles, wrapped in the cloak of a great epic quest. In his introduction to The Gunslinger, King notes that he was inspired, in part, by The Lord of the Rings, written by J.R.R. Tolkien. But truth be told, The Gunslinger resembles Tolkien’s work only insofar as there is a quest to be followed. Later, the series will acquire a motley sort of fellowship. But beyond that, the world and story that King has created for The Gunslinger (and ultimately for the Dark Tower series) are uniquely his own. And that is, perhaps, one of the most compelling elements to this particular novel.
We begin, simply, with a man walking across a desert in an iron-willed pursuit of his quarry. Because the initial premise is so simple, it’s very easy to access the “other worldly” setting within which the story will take place. A desert is familiar. A man in pursuit of an enemy is familiar. And so when King begins to fill in the spaces around the desert and around the Gunslinger, it’s easy to accept the bizarre details – like Devil’s Grass and the fact that The Gunslinger is one of what were once many Gunslingers who were revered as something akin to an incarnation of the Knights of the Round Table.
And such a comparison is perfectly valid. In many ways, The Gunslinger was born and grew up in a land, named New Canaan, that was much like Camelot. But as the oft-repeated phrase implies, “the world has moved on.” Or in other words, times have changed. The world has fallen into a dark age. And, somehow, The Gunslinger’s quest is bound up in the fate and possible hope of resurrection for the world.
As the novel unfolds, King paints his world with a wonderfully colorful brush – using vocabulary and phrases that literally are on the cutting edge of language. If you are contemplating reading The Gunslinger, just for a moment forget the criticisms that you have heard about King as an author and consider the possibility that there is one book in which King faces and conquers his own linguistic demons – much like his main character, The Gunslinger, faces and conquers the many demons populating The World That Has Moved On.
Along the way, The Gunslinger, whose name, Roland, is mentioned only sparingly, encounters all manner of uniquely bizarre characters. There is the farmer, Brown, whose pet raven, Zoltan, loves to shriek obscenities. There was Allie, the bar owner who the Gunslinger killed out of mercy after going mad because she learned what happens when you die. There was Sheb, the piano player who once was a spectator to the greatest personal tragedy of Roland’s life. There is Jake, a young boy from New York City who, somehow, manages to arrive at this strangely alien land by way of a tragic accident of his own. And there is the Man In Black himself – a character of cunning, cruelty and wizardry.
But none of them compare to Roland himself. The quest through the desert and what lies beyond is as much of a journey within himself as it is a quest to catch the man in black. King makes liberal use of flashbacks to flesh out the character of the Gunslinger – to show us a man, though exceptionally hard-edged and stoic, who is nonetheless a romantic. King shows us Roland’s humanity. And he does so in a way that is thoroughly and utterly compelling.
And it is this element that makes The Gunslinger (the man and the book) something to be admired. Roland is the kind of person who faces his adversity with a single-minded sense of purpose. His agonizing trek across the hardpan of the desert reveals that the Gunslinger not only is a man who has a tragic history – one that has turned him into pillar of single-minded, unyielding determination.
Even so, with all of King’s descriptive skill, the story would not be transcendent without its final passages, the ones in which Roland does, finally, have his fateful confrontation with the Man in Black. Their conversation reveals that there is much more to this story than a simple, linear quest across unforgiving lands. Indeed, the final passages reveal a universe of wonder and profound mystery. For a man as deeply as pragmatic as Roland, it is a challenge to simply survive the experience. For the reader, it as much of a challenge.
But it is this notion of a much deeper meaning to the world, as hinted at by King’s wonderfully conceived notion of ka – a kind of destiny – that literally elevates the novel to higher level. With these final passages, the story of Roland and his quest to find the Dark Tower can become a metaphor for a great many of the challenges we all face in life. And when an author manages to pull that off, with not only the story itself but a skill and craft in the telling of the story, then the result is a truly classic work of art.
Overall Grade: A
The Gunslinger may very well be one of the most underrated books in the Dark Tower series. King manages to accomplish a great deal in this book. His descriptions in this novel are no less colorful than those of his later works. However, because of the relative brevity of this work, those descriptions are far more meaningful and relevant to the overall story than some of the endless regurgitation that occurs in later King works. And therein lays the true greatness of The Gunslinger. It is Stephen King at his absolute best in ideas, descriptions, creativity, and epic storytelling – without the profane bludgeoning of the English language for which he is so well known today.