Top critical review
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The film version is better
on 12 January 2003
At a time when the vanishing World War II generation is paid tribute through books and films, HEARTS IN ATLANTIS is Stephen King's homage to his (and mine), the Vietnam generation.
HEARTS is a series of stories that take place, respectively, in 1960, 1966, 1983, and two in 1999. All are loosely connected through characters we meet in the first, 11-year old Bobby Garfield and his best pals Sully-John and Carol, and one from the group of slightly older boys who torment them, Willie Shearman. Each of the storylines otherwise stands alone, more or less. In 1960, Bobby, a fatherless boy living with an uncaring mother, becomes attached to the world-wise Ted, an old man renting the rooms upstairs who is being hunted by sinister "low men in yellow coats". In 1966, new character Pete is on the verge of flunking out of the university because of his preoccupation with an addictive card game. More important to the book's overall plot, he falls in love with a fellow student, Carol from Story One, and through her discovers the anti-Vietnam peace movement. In 1983, Willie Shearman, a Vietnam veteran, continues to pay a bizarre penance for past sins, chief of which, apparently, was the wrong he did Carol as a boy. In 1999, emotionally and physically scarred Vietnam vet Sully-John remembers his time "in the green". Also in 1999, Carol and Bobby stumble across each other after leading separate lives for almost 40 years. The threads between all five plots are Carol and a beat-up old baseball glove once belonging to Bobby.
This is not one of King's more lucid works. Indeed, the Willie Shearman episode of 1983 needed much more explaining. (My reaction to it was just short of "Huh?!") However, a mediocre book by King is a gem by other standards, so it's impossible not to recommend it on some level. The point the author is trying to make, I think, is that the memories from our formative years, however deformed by succeeding events - in this case the Vietnam conflict - stay with us as powerful emotional catalysts, and perhaps as crippling psychological scars, even unto our twilight years and old age.
The film version of HEARTS IN ATANTIS, based almost solely on the first chapter dealing with the events of 1960, was magical in its use of visual and aural images to evoke that period in the mid-twentieth century when those in childhood, and middle-class America as a whole, were on the verge of losing their innocence. Because both I and the fictional Bobby turned eleven in that year, I could relate. And, I think the book will stir up memories in anyone of my generation, whether he/she fought in Southeast Asia or demonstrated at home.
Not a great book, but worth a read. Definitely see the movie for a more intense burst of the book's flavor.