I’m off and running on my third or fourth attempt to read the Dark Tower series. It’s not that I didn’t like the three or four books I made it through on my previous efforts – I just have a crappy track record of finishing what I start. Still, it hasn’t been so long since my last go round that I’ve forgotten The Gunslinger entirely. It’s still the relatively ragged and unpolished gem I remember – King’s added a nice forward to this revised and expanded edition expounding on that.
Aside from Night Shift’s short stories, The Gunslinger probably represents King’s earliest work that actually made it into print. King remembers the genesis of The Dark Tower as a nineteen-year-old’s effort to create a distinctly American epic fantasy, one that could stand alongside The Lord of the Rings. Nineteen’s a great age to embark upon a heroic endeavor. You’re immortal, you’re invincible and you know everything. Everybody deserves to have that experience. Even with King’s revisions and slight polish, the rough edges that you’d expect from a teenager’s first novel are on display front and center. I found that made up a substantial part of The Gunslinger’s charm.
The Gunslinger’s also an impressive melding of America’s Wild West mythos with the heroic quest. It’s a little easier to relate to Roland than to an elf or a hobbit. He evokes the legends that Eastwood and Wayne left etched on the American psyche. Sure, his motivations are vague – we know he’s relentlessly pursuing The Man in Black (Why not evoke another American icon?) to learn what he knows of The Dark Tower’s mysteries, but exactly what the big deal is about the Tower is still pretty nebulous by the end of this short novel. Still, the journey’s satisfying enough to make up for the loose ends left.
The book’s split between Roland’s current adventures and flashbacks to his boyhood and the training that turned him into a member of the quasi-mystic Gunslinger ranks. Roland’s present day adventures concern Roland’s pursuit of his shadowy nemesis through strange and perilous territory that’s dotted with remnants and artifacts of a world that’s familiar to us. Before his final palaver with The Man in Black, Roland will be pitted against hordes of slavering mutants, journey a ways with a boy who seems unstuck in time and place, and spend a little quality time with Annie, a lonely saloon hostess who’s in danger of strolling eyes wide open into a terrible trap.
Roland’s history is vividly depicted, as King recounts Roland’s apprenticeship under a harsh master and the life lessons Roland has to learn before he’s ready to strap on his father’s guns. The Gunslingers are a nifty riff on semi-mystic orders we’re familiar with from popular culture, from the Knights of the Round Table to the Jedi, and their roots in the American experience make them all the more appealing. The nineteen-year-old King was still skilled enough to bring readers into Roland’s mindset, making comprehensible how the boy turned into the resolute crusader willing to consign any he crosses to damnation so long as it brings him just a few steps closer to The Dark Tower.
Sure, the prose is clunky and occasionally gets pretentious enough to make you squirm, but the story is strong enough to make that forgivable. Honestly, King’s hardcore fans who haven’t yet made it to The Dark Tower will be fascinated in the younger version’s mindset. While The Gunslinger has some macabre elements, this saga isn’t a horror story. It’s a treat to see King putting his stamp on a different genre and he displayed a damned impressive vision for a teenage writer.
Will I go the distance with Roland this time? I’d damned well better. This is my job, for pity’s sake. Still, I’m kinda pleased that all my false starts gave me an excuse to revisit The Gunslinger.