No Stephen King Plot Generator could produce “The Life of Chuck,” unless experimental fiction were added to the potential genres. The story proceeds in reverse chronology through three discrete sections whose connections fully revealed themselves to me only on a second reading. The first is a dystopian vision of a world in which all systems are failing. California is “peeling away like old wallpaper” into the Pacific after a series of earthquakes, generating food shortages; plague is ravaging parts of the world; and perhaps worst of all, the internet is about to go down for good. (At least that hasn’t happened yet.) A schoolteacher named Marty, grimly coping with the new realities as best he can, is startled by the suddenly ubiquitous billboards and TV ads congratulating an accountant named Chuck Krantz for “39 Great Years!” What sort of retirement party is this?
We don’t find out right away. Instead, the second section takes us back a few years, when Chuck, attending a business convention in Boston, has one of those magical moments when all seems right with the world. He happens upon a busker playing drums on a street corner and spontaneously breaks into dance, showing off his skills before a growing crowd. Chuck grabs the hand of a woman watching and the two of them perform an impromptu routine that delights both the crowd and the busker, whose tip jar overflows. Later, he reflects on the mystery of that junction. “Why did you stop to listen, and why did you start to dance? He doesn’t know, and would answers make a good thing better?”
The final section is an unconventional haunted house story that reveals both the source of Chuck’s nimbleness on his feet and the meaning of what came earlier. Think of what each person’s brain contains, a beloved teacher told Chuck when he was a child. “Everything you see. Everything you know. The world. … Planes in the sky, manhole covers in the street. Every year you live, that world inside your head will get bigger and brighter, more detailed and complex.” And when a person dies, Chuck realizes, it’s as if that world goes dark: “Like a room when you turned out the light.” The human mind, at once infinite and finite, containing multitudes that can be snuffed out in a moment: It’s the definition of mortality.
“The Life of Chuck” is one of the oddest, most affecting stories I have read in a very long time. It’s a little disappointing, then, that the two remaining pieces in the volume feel more like retreads of conventional material. “If It Bleeds,” a nearly 200-page mash-up of horror and noir that any other writer would count as a stand-alone novel, follows the detective Holly Gibney, whom readers more faithful than I will recognize from several of King’s recent novels, in pursuit of an “outsider,” a supernatural creature that derives its strength from human agony. (In a shrewdly ironic sign of the times, this outsider has found a reliable source of emotional nourishment — he’s a TV reporter who covers mass shootings.) And “Rat,” in which a stymied novelist makes a deal with the Devil in the form of a rodent — or is it a fever dream? — is less audacious than King’s previous delvings into the nightmare of writer’s block.
But I wouldn’t begrudge any reader refuge in familiar pleasures, least of all now. We all need solace wherever we can find it. One friend of mine has gone back to “Love in the Time of Cholera.” Others, led by the writer Yiyun Li in an online reading group, have decided now is the time to finally tackle “War and Peace.” Some might think finding the right book should be the least of our worries during a pandemic, but how else are we to while away our restless nights? As sirens blare outside my Brooklyn window and the headlines grow more apocalyptic by the day, I might start working my way through King’s backlist. He’s good company in the dark.