There's a video on YouTube in which Stephen King describes his first encounter with Stanley Kubrick. "I actually think stories of the supernatural are always optimistic, don't you?" King remembers Kubrick insisting over the phone from England; when asked to elaborate, the director continued, "Supernatural fiction and ghost stories all posit the basic suggestion that we survive death. If we survive death, that's optimistic, isn't it?" It's a great story, although the punchline belongs to King, not Kubrick: "Well," he answered, "what about hell?"
I kept thinking about this clip as I read King's new novel, "Revival," which is a baggy book with a very fine one hidden inside. That it takes so long to get to the good stuff is the central frustration of this novel, which tells the story (after a fashion) of the Rev. Charles Jacobs, a small-town pastor obsessed with electricity who suffers a spectacular loss of faith after his wife and young son are killed in an automobile crash.
"Religion," he tells his stunned congregation in the wake of the accident, in a diatribe known forever after as the Terrible Sermon, "is the theological equivalent of a quick-buck insurance scam, where you pay in your premium year after year, and then, when you need the benefits you paid for so — pardon the pun — so religiously, you discover the company that took your money does not, in fact, exist."
No optimism there, just the bleakest sort of revelation, in which the very thing Jacobs has trusted, around which he has constructed his existence, is exposed as the most pernicious sort of lie.
"Revival," however, is not narrated by Jacobs. Instead, it is built around the figure of Jamie Morton, who first meets Jacobs in the early 1960s as a boy of 6 and falls in and out of his orbit over the ensuing half-century. Jamie is the youngest of five siblings; from the outset, he and Jacobs have a special bond. "You were my favorite," the reverend tells him, just before he leaves the pulpit of their Maine town, banished for the terrible truths he has imparted, his vision of a world without God.
Anyone who's read much King will recognize these dynamics: the smart but impressionable kid, the charismatic adult, the rural Maine of another era, simpler if also more proscribed. "I wish I could push aside the account I set out to write," Jamie notes, "and instead fill a book — and not a small one — about those years and that world, which is so different from the one I live in now." The world to which he refers is that of "It" or "The Body," in which innocence and corruption travel hand-in-hand.
For Jamie, that corruption has a personal resonance — a guitarist, he becomes a junkie, and by his mid-30s has been abandoned by his band mates, his family, even himself. "Try the card again," he says to a tough-as-nails Tulsa, Okla., motel clerk after his credit card is declined. "Honey," she replies, "I look at you and I don't have to."
This is the sort of moment at which King excels, with its vernacular everydayness. And yet, such scenes are unexpectedly scarce in "Revival," which spends far too many of its pages staring at the walls of Jamie's head. What is Jamie but a guy who's seen his share of trouble, who wants nothing more than to come out on the other side? In that sense, he's not unlike Dan Torrance, the grown-up young boy of "The Shining," who in "Doctor Sleep" has no choice but to face down his own demons once and for all.
The difference is that Dan sits at the center of his story, whereas Jamie never does. This becomes increasingly problematic as "Revival" progresses and Jamie loses sight of Jacobs for long stretches, telling us instead about his own adult life in Colorado, where he works at a recording studio.
The reverend is never far from his imagination, but only in the last hundred or so pages does he become an urgent presence — or (perhaps I should say) an urgent presence again. Jamie has followed Jacobs' peregrinations, first to a stint as a sideshow carny, then as a successful revival preacher and evangelist. During one of their sporadic meetings, the reverend makes clear that he sees no difference between the marks on the midway and those who come to his tent shows seeking solace of another sort.
"They don't deserve the truth," he rages. "You called them rubes, and how right you are. They have set aside what brains they have — and many of them have quite a lot — and put their faith in that gigantic and fraudulent insurance company called religion. It promises them an eternity of joy in the next life if they live according to the rules in this one, and many of them try, but even that's not enough. When the pain comes, they want miracles. To them I'm nothing but a witch doctor who touches them with magic rings instead of shaking a bone rattle over them."
That's some of the most passionate writing in the novel: fiery, full of rage. It is complicated by the fact that Jacobs does seem able to cure the sick, with the help of his "secret electricity" — an elemental power, "potestas magnum universum (the force that powers the universe)." Still, lest we imagine such a force as benevolent, Jacobs (and through him, Jamie) discovers it is not.
This is the vivid novel concealed by the lackluster one, the story of what happens when we are betrayed by our faith. What if the universe is not meaningless but actively malevolent? What if there is only torment on the other side of the veil?
In part, that is a matter of complicity; Jamie has many opportunities to turn his back on Jacobs but does not. "This," he tells us, "is how we bring about our own damnation, you know — by ignoring the voice that begs us to stop."
Even so, the message of "Revival" may be that when faced with hell (or worse), complicity — not to mention optimism — is rendered moot.
"[W]ho is screenwriting our lives?" Jamie wonders. "Fate or coincidence?" If the former, he continues, "there is no such thing as light and our belief in it is a foolish illusion.... [W]e live in darkness like animals in a burrow, or ants deep in their hill."
Scribner: 406 pp., $30