A couple of weeks back, a friend of mine and I were discussing some of our favorite bands, some of whom have been around since the '80s and '90s. We were discussing their latest albums, comparing them to what they did back in their heydays, and while we liked the new stuff well enough, they just couldn't compare to what they did at their peak. I commented that some of them were getting closer to what they were back then, but he said, "You can't go back to that." I agreed with him.
The same could be said of Stephen King, I think. I first started reading him in the late 1980s, back when he was publishing stuff like Misery and It and The Eyes of the Dragon and the first three Dark Tower books. They were good stuff, and for me, they represent King at his best. I've read his fiction almost religiously since then, and while I always find his books engaging and compelling, most of them have been fairly forgettable since then. I find that he still manages to hit the mark just right now and then (Bag of Bones, Hearts in Atlantis, and 11/22/63, for example), but even then, they're not anywhere close to what he was writing back when I first discovered him. It's hard to tell if it's that his writing has changed, or if I'm just a different person now than I was then, but even as I re-read his earlier work, I find that there are more memorable books from then than there are from now.
Revival is his newest book, and while I still find that ease of narrative and excellent characterization that I'm used to finding in his stories, the structure was a little strange to me. It felt very disjointed. It started off with us learning of the rise and fall of Charles Jacobs, a minister from when the narrator was very young. Then it tells us of the rise and fall of Jamie Morton, the narrator of the story. Then, as we reach the halfway point of this novel, we finally get to the part about the titular revival. It seemed like an odd way to present the story, as King jumped back and forth along the timeline of the story as he told these individual tales before getting to the primary story of the revival itself.
None of what King puts into the story is extraneous, mind you (save for a sly reference to Joyland, where he gives a little more detail than necessary to remind us Constant Readers that all of his stories are interconnected). The development of the minister and the narrator are necessary for where the story goes once it gets going; it was just structured in an odd way. At the end of Doctor Sleep, King mentioned in his afterword that his son convinced him to show the downfall of Danny Torrence, and it seems like King took that to heart for this novel, as well. Also, 11/22/63 had the short novel at the beginning of the story where Jake Epping goes back to see what happens to the present day if he makes big changes in the past. There were effectively two stories in that novel, and here in Revival, it feels like we get three complete stories. I don't mind it (as I said earlier, his stories are always engaging and compelling), but it doesn't feel as perfect as some of his earlier works.
It also doesn't help that the story has a lot of problems. King establishes early on Jacobs' obsession with electricity, but that's really the heart of the story, and it's not even the focus for much of the story. The narrative rambles about through all the lives King wants to populate his novel, and that focus exists just below the surface of it all. Once we reach the point where we realize Jacobs' true motivations, we're about 75% through the book, and it feels like much of what has come before has been a waste of time. That's not accurate (as with any King story, much of the story is in his characters, and he excels at creating them), but I was expecting the primary plot to be a part of that development. And the ending? Well, it sort of comes out of nowhere. Small hints are dropped throughout the story, but not to the point where it prepares you for what's coming at the conclusion. I mean, Jacobs is basically frying peoples' brains by the end of the book, and most of the people he's tried to help are suffering from neurological disorders. That makes sense. How does that prepare us for this kind of ending?
In the end, Jacobs comes off as a series of stereotypes after King establishes him as a preacher in the start of the book. There, he feels realized, but later, as he becomes a carny, a faith healer, and then the villain, he feels more like a caricature in each position. In fact, as I was reading the book, I started to wonder if there was a real antagonist in this story at all, as Jacobs never felt like one until that last quarter of the book. There was also a point in the story where Jamie confronts Jacobs over what he's doing and trying to get him to stop, but what Jacobs said to defend himself sounded pretty reasonable to me. I wasn't convinced that Jamie was being reasonable himself, and I think that was the point where the story started to fall apart for me. When the reader's not convinced, there's nowhere the story can go to save itself.
I've also noticed that most of King's recent works have been extensions of ideas he came up with early in his career and abandoned for one reason or another. I'm not sure what drives him to do that instead of coming up with new ideas, but it makes me wonder if he's trying to go back to his prime. I like King's fiction, and I will remain a Constant Reader because what he does well he does well enough for me to stick around, but what my friend said is true: You can't go back to that. You can only move forward.