The cover of Stephen King’s new novel, “Finders Keepers,” features a blood-spattered leather notebook opened to facing pages of handwritten text smudged and streaked with red. The image is a good distillation of the entire novel; both are lurid and intriguing, bookish and bloody, and neither is terribly subtle.
The story opens by introducing an iconic and reclusive American writer named John Rothstein who, in the venerable tradition of Salinger and Pynchon, has sequestered himself in isolation from the wider world. He lives in the New Hampshire countryside and spends his days writing in notebooks that accumulate, he thinks, “like little piles of rabbit turds scattered along a woodland trail.”
Even if Rothstein himself considers his later work roughly as valuable as the excrement of a small mammal, his many readers want to know what he’s writing. And one fan is willing to take extreme measures to secure access to those unpublished manuscripts.
The fan, Morris Bellamy, is the book-mad villain of this novel — which revisits the theme of literary mania that King tackled in “Misery.’’ Bellamy devoured Rothstein’s famous trilogy of Jimmy Gold novels in high school, and while he admired the character’s anarchic nonconformity in the first two books, he feels that Rothstein betrayed his readers and his character by allowing Jimmy Gold to settle down with a family and a stable job in the third book.
In fact, Bellamy feels so strongly about the third book that after breaking into Rothstein’s home, he holds the author at gunpoint and delivers the harshest review imaginable: “ ‘You created one of the greatest characters in American literature, then [gave up] on him,’ Morrie said. ‘A man who could do that doesn’t deserve to live.’ ”
Suffice to say that the literary home invasion ends with Morrie hauling off dozens of Rothstein’s notebooks. Before he can enjoy them, however, and learn whether the author’s unpublished works redeem his perceived literary sins, Morrie is sent to jail for another crime. He manages to hide the notebooks and around $20,000 in cash in an antique trunk and bury it in a vacant lot beside a stream.
A series of coincidences powers the rest of the somewhat outlandish plot. A literature-loving boy named Pete Saubers happens to find the trunk. He uses the money to support his family, develops an abiding love of Rothstein’s fiction, and enters into a dangerous scheme to sell the unpublished work. Bellamy, meanwhile, gets out of jail, tracks down Saubers and the notebooks, and prepares to steal them back. The odd trio of sleuthing detectives from King’s previous novel, “Mr. Mercedes,” become involved in the case, and they rush to find Saubers before Bellamy does.
The literary critique at gunpoint in the opening scene is only one of many moments in the novel that unites books and violence. Near the end, Bellamy trains a gun on Saubers, who momentarily placates the madman by revealing something tantalizing from one of Rothstein’s unpublished works. Intrigued, the gunman’s eyes widen, and he asks, simply: “What happens?”
The desire to know what happens next is precisely what drives readers through King’s 400-plus pages. Oddly this makes Bellamy a kind of clumsy proxy for the avid reader, albeit a twisted, nightmarish one.
T.S. Eliot, Kurt Vonnegut, D.H. Lawrence, and Émile Zola are only some of the authors that King’s characters refer to in the book. The allusions are often clever and enjoyable, though King seems perhaps a bit anxious to prove his literary acumen. Deeper themes about the power of fiction feel somewhat grafted onto the suspenseful story. When Saubers, for instance, has a crazy man pointing a gun at him, it seems unlikely that he would reflect on “the core power of make-believe.”
But that’s exactly what King has him do, lest we forget that he is attempting to address weighty themes about the nature of fiction. More plausible is a moment when Bellamy, surveying the scene of a murder, perceives an affinity between books and blood that gives the novel a somewhat strained thematic unity: “In black-and-white, the splashes and splatters of blood look like ink.”
By Stephen King
Scribner, 434 pp., $30
Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.