cover image Hearts in Atlantis

Hearts in Atlantis

Stephen King. Scribner, $28 (528pp) ISBN 978-0-684-85351-2

By ""Atlantis,"" King means the 1960s, that otherworldly decade that, like the fabled continent, has sunk into myth. By ""hearts,"" he means not just the seat of love but the card game, which figures prominently in the second of the five scarcely linked narratives in this full-bodied but disjointed omnibus, King's third (after Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight). The stories proceed chronologically, from 1960 to 1999. The first, the novel-length ""Low Men in Yellow Coats,"" is the most traditionally King: an alienated youth, Bobby Garfield, is befriended by a new neighbor, the elderly Ted Brautigan, who introduces him to literature and turns out to be on the run from villainous creatures from another time/dimension. A potent coming-of-age tale, the story connects to King's Dark Tower saga. The novella-length title entry, set in 1966 and distinguished by a bevy of finely etched characters, concerns a college dorm whose inhabitants grow dangerously addicted to hearts. The last three pieces are short stories. ""Blind Willie,"" set in 1983, details the penance paid by a Vietnam vet for a wartime sin, as does ""Why We're in Vietnam."" The concluding tale, ""Heavenly Shades of Night Falling,"" revives Bobby and provides closure. Sometimes the stories feel like experiments, even exercises, and they can wear their craft on their sleeves--in the way the game of hearts symbolizes the quagmire of Vietnam, for instance, or in how each narrative employs a different prose style, from the loose-limbed third-person of ""Low Men"" to the tighter first-person of ""Hearts,"" and so on. With about ten million published words and counting, King probably can write a seductive story in his sleep and none of these artful tales are less; but only the title story rivals his best work and, overall, the volume has a patchy feel, and exudes a bittersweet obsession with the past that will please the author's fellow babyboomers--King nails the `60s and its legacy--but may make others grind their teeth. (Sept.)