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Stephen King serves up pulp softly boiled

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Special to The Times

WITH the distance of time, pulp fiction acquires a burnished glow. What was once considered lurid, sensational and vulgar now feels bold, direct and street-smart. Reviving and redefining these guilty pleasures of decades past has now become something of a tradition in the American publishing industry. When the vivid works of Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford and David Goodis, among others, were moldering out of print, Barry Gifford helped create a retro revival in the late ‘80s by republishing some 90 hard-boiled novels under the imprint Black Lizard. The Berkeley-based company had all of its mass-market-sized pulp covers painted by New Age artist Kirwan, whose use of bright, unicorn-friendly colors seemed incongruous with the noir sensibility of the novels themselves.

In the ‘90s, Random House purchased and reissued a few of Black Lizard’s offerings (and others controlled by its Vintage imprint, such as the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett) in larger-sized trade editions as part of the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard series. Despite the existence of this eponymous crime imprint, many of the original Black Lizard publications have once again fallen out of print.

Hard Case Crime is a new line of mass-market-sized paperbacks that, as its press release proclaims, “features an exciting mix of lost pulp masterpieces from some of the most acclaimed crime writers of all time and gripping new novels from the next generation of great hardboiled authors, all with new painted covers in the grand pulp style.” The “grand pulp style” is indeed captured with the use of genre grandmasters Donald E. Westlake, Ed McBain and Lawrence Block and the cover art of Robert McGinnis, whose illustrations of long-limbed vixens have draped many a ‘60s pulp paperback.

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Hard Case Crime kicks off its second season with a publishing coup that guarantees it millions of sales: a new novel, “The Colorado Kid,” by the prolific Stephen King, apparently eager to contribute to the fledgling enterprise. King is a 500-pound canary, and it’s easy to understand why Hard Case Crime publishers Charles Ardai and Max Phillips would allow him to write anything he wants. Although King dedicates his book to Dan J. Marlowe, author of “The Name of the Game Is Death,” and lionizes him as the “[h]ardest of the hard-boiled,” “The Colorado Kid” doesn’t even loosely resemble the stated reason for the imprint’s existence: “The best in hard-boiled crime fiction.”

King has referred to himself as “the Big Mac” of literature. Here, the author isn’t concerned about filling the reader’s stomach with the structural carbs of genre fiction, even the kind suggested by Glen Orbik’s cover art of a smoldering redhead in a slinky, low-cut black dress. “The Colorado Kid” cannot really be considered hard-boiled, or even a variant of crime fiction or detective fiction. It’s more like “My Dinner With Andre,” in that the three main characters -- two aging newspapermen before the audience of a female intern -- talk shop about cranking out a newspaper for a small Maine tourist destination and reluctantly cough up details of folklore about how and why a 40-year-old Colorado man croaked decades earlier on their island.

King has lived in Maine most of his life and is obviously familiar with the taciturn and exclusionary nature of Mainers. “The Colorado Kid’s” limited charm comes from having the young wannabe journalist coax gab from the tiny-town newspapermen. King’s depiction of a restaurant during its off-season rings true, down to the dialect of a meaty waitress.

If it were reduced to a fifth of its already slim size, “The Colorado Kid” would make an engaging lifestyle feature for Conde Nast Traveler magazine about the peculiarities of Maine’s small islands. But a whodunit it isn’t.

Though King refers several times to Agatha Christie and “Murder, She Wrote” (a television drama for many seasons situated in rural Maine), there is not much here in the way of suspense with the living characters, except for -- and this mystery is ultimately revealed -- whether one of the geezer newsmen is going to stiff the waitress. There is no real threat to the characters throughout, nor do they feel the need to conclude their filibuster-length chats and get on with a change of scenery. The author does let on in his afterword that he was not interested in providing a solution to the question of how the Colorado Kid died -- the solution, of course, being the staple of all whodunits. Rather than pimping stylistic conventions, King has his eye instead on a philosophic goal: contemplating the unanswerable.

The stated inspiration for “The Colorado Kid” is a haunting news clipping about the death of a young woman off the coast of Maine that King once put aside but could never again find. “I don’t want to belabor the point,” writes King in the afterword, “but before I leave you, I ask you to consider the fact that we live in a web of mystery, and have simply gotten so used to the fact that we have crossed out the word and replaced it with one we like better, that one being reality. Where do we come from? Where were we before we were here? Don’t know. Where are we going? Don’t know.”

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What this means, I think, is that “The Colorado Kid” is Stephen King’s existential despair, his “Nausea” or “Waiting for Godot,” in which he equates the structural straitjackets of genre fiction with greedy fundamentalism. “A lot of churches,” he writes in the afterword, “have what they assure us are the answers, but most of us have a sneaking suspicion all that might be a con-job laid down to fill the collection plates. In the meantime, we’re in a kind of compulsory dodgeball game as we free-fall from Wherever to Ain’t Got a Clue.”

When King was awarded the National Book Foundation medal in 2003 for distinguished contribution to American letters, Yale professor of humanities Harold Bloom felt that the downfall of civilization was surely upon us. Bloom’s invective, “Dumbing Down American Readers,” declared King unfit to shine the shoes of the award’s previous winners, such as Philip Roth, Arthur Miller and John Updike.

“What he is,” wrote Bloom, “is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.” Stephen King is no Samuel Beckett, and his prolix thousand-page bricks denude forests more quickly than an Amazonian year, but “The Colorado Kid” -- and other King novels -- reveals anxieties that Big Mac-consuming nonbelievers can understand: the untrustworthiness of the government, the psychopathy of believers and the capricious nature of life and death.

If King confronted more directly the dark mysteries of his own life -- the Horatio Alger-like success story devolving into a boozing obsession for a certain white powder, the roller coaster of recovery and sobriety, and years of severe pain after the horror of being mangled on a lonely road by a driver who later committed suicide -- I suspect that the Kid From Maine would not be reluctant to find a conclusion to this soft-boiled pulper.

Adam Parfrey is the co-editor of “Sin-a-Rama: Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties” and editor of “It’s a Man’s World: Men’s Adventure Magazines, the Postwar Pulps.” He is also the publisher of Feral House and the co-publisher (with Jodi Wille) of Process.

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