Sunday, February 7, 2010

THINNER by STEPHEN KING

Thinner is one of Stephen King's Richard Bachman books, the handful of books that he wrote in the late seventies to mid-eighties and published using the Bachman pseudonym.  Why did the best selling author in the world publish under a pseudonym?  Well, depending on what you read or what you choose to believe, it was either as an outlet for King's creativity, to circumvent the then conventional wisdom that an author publishing more than one book a year would over-saturate the market (Hello! James Patterson...Danielle Steel...Nora Roberts--didn't you ever get that memo?) or to test the waters to see if his talent or his name was what made each book a bigger bestseller than the last.  When he was outed by a particularly dogged D.C. bookseller after the publication of Thinner, King officially killed off his pseudonym, and for good measure--as he often does--killed him metaphorically as well, in The Dark Half.


Whatever his reasons for doing it, Thinner is as frighening a psychological/supernatural thriller as any of King's other work. 


The novel opens with a curse.  Hot shot lawyer Billy Halleck has recently been absolved, with a wink and a nod by his friend the judge, of any guilt in the death of an old Gypsy woman whom he'd struck and killed with his car on a village street.  As he came out of the courthouse with his wife, an old Gypsy man, the leader of the band, with a rotting nose and an appetite for revenge, lay a hand on Billy's cheek and whispered one word.  "Thinner."  Billy, a more-than-portly 250-pounder thinks of this disturbing incident when he weighs himself the next morning and discovers that he's lost three pounds.  Billy is a rational, materialistic, suburban white man, practicing law in the city and having drinks and steaks at the country club and enjoying all the comforts of an upper-middle class life and yet...some part of him knows immediately and unimpeachably, deep down in his still large and robust gut, that some truly bad shit has begun.


Chapter by chapter we follow Billy's weight loss--two, three, five pounds a day--and the growing disbelief and fear of those around him.  He visits the doctor.  He submits to tests.  But he knows--in that rapidly diminishing gut--what the problem is.  People fall away from him, and when even his wife turns on him (for his own good, of course), Billy leaves his suburban nest on a journey up the East Coast in search of the band of Gypsies and their leader who did this to him. 


The end of Thinner presents its most chilling moment, as Billy is given a choice.  From the moment that choice is given, we know he will make it.  And from the moment he makes it, we know that, as bad as it all as been, this cannot end well.


Interestingly, for me, Thinner's only jarring note comes from one of its basic premises.  No, not the curse: the Gypsies.  Gypsies?  Really?  In suburban southern Connecticut in the mid-eighties?  Even though I had trouble with that one point, having grown up, as I did, in the exact area in which the book takes place and never once having seen a band of Gypsies come into town and set up shop on the village green, still, the story is a beaut.  Thinner is a taut, fast-paced psychological thriller, short and bittersweet and well worth a place on the shelf.

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