Friday, May 2, 2014

Thinner Is a Weighty Morality Tale

See the title above? I'm not sure that I really like it. I mean, it's fine enough from a craft perspective, providing a decent summary of the upcoming review's content and (I like to think) adding a bit of panache with the wordplay. But that phrase "morality tale" has a lot of connotative baggage. It makes me worry that readers might think the book represents a pedantic period in Stephen King's oeuvre, an uncharacteristically preachy interlude from the evangelist of grue. (Non-spoiler: It doesn't.) Still, I can't quite manage to divorce myself from the descriptor, because it so ably describes the book. Thinner really is a grim ethical examination of the universality of human depravity and the need to accept responsibility for one's own sins.

Some people have measured out the good things in life with coffee spoons. Not so Billy Halleck. A successful attorney, loving husband, and doting father, he has portioned out life's delights by the shovelful -- and nowhere is that more apparent than at dinnertime. Halleck weighs in at 251 pounds, a good fifty pounds heavier than he ought to be given his age and height. Or he used to weigh that much. Just the other day, he'd been driving through town when his wife Heidi had scooted over and started fiddling with his fly. He'd liked that, liked it a lot. Then a gypsy woman had stepped from between two parked cars, and Halleck had run her down like a dog. Of course there'd been a trial, but Halleck knew the judge and so the charges didn't stick. He'd walked free from the courthouse, but an ancient gypsy man with a cancerous hole where his nose should've been had grabbed him, caressed his cheek with a crooked finger, and murmured, "Thinner." Unpleasant, but nothing Halleck couldn't handle -- or can he? Ever since the encounter, the scale's needle rises a little less each day, and no how much he eats, Halleck can't seem to stop its slide.

I won't call Thinner profound; it has too much pulp in its bloodline for that. But it hefts some pretty weighty issues all the same, not the least of which is humanity's universal moral culpability. As Halleck's weight plummets, he bounces the crazy-sounding idea of a gypsy curse off of a police officer who'd been present at the accident. Could the gypsy man have cursed him out of some bent desire for vengeance? No, he had to know the accident wasn't entirely Halleck's fault. The lawman attempts to bolster such moral rationalizations, but his assurances fall stillborn from his lips: "I couldn't agree more that there's no absolute right and absolute wrong; there's just one gray shading into the next, lighter or darker. But you don't think [the gypsy woman's] husband's going to buy that [expletive], do you?" No, and readers won't either. Sure, no one can claim complete innocence, what with Halleck's unsafe driving and the gypsy woman's jaywalking. Halleck, though, took unethical steps to insulate himself from the consequences, and he transforms into something fearsome while trying to remove the punishment he thinks was unfairly thrust upon him. A "push" is what he calls the curse. "No blame, you say," the ancient gypsy intones near the novel's end. "You tell yourself and tell yourself and tell yourself. But there is no poosh, white man from town. Everybody pays, even for things they didn't do." In other words, blood requires blood. A morality tale? Yes, the oldest and most fundamental kind.

(Picture: CC 2009 by st4bucks)



Chestertonian Rambler said...

I always liked the term "morality play," though. There's a delightful darkness and thoughtfulness in, say, Everyman or Mankind (or Breaking Bad, for that matter, which many critics have called a latter-day morality play) that isn't present in the Veggie Tales kid's stories people think of today.

Maybe morality plays, like fairy tales, have (to steal Lewis's beautiful metaphor) been banished to the nurseries once they went out of style.

Loren Eaton said...

I personally think that it's a perfectly fine term, but many folks seem allergic to it. I won't hazard any less-than-flattering guesses as to why.

You should really read Thinner, by the way. It's as much noir as horror.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I might. Though these days, pure noir is rarely to my taste (except perhaps in short-story form). Breaking Bad was the exception, for me, largely because (a) it was perfectly structured and (b) it surrounded its protagonist-becomes-evil-and-destroys-self-and-soul plotline with complex and lovable secondary characters, and (c) it offered complex and perhaps even-handed social satire. But I still like hardboiled more, which offers at least the hope of someone trying to survive and learn from his mistakes.

Loren Eaton said...

Noir only really works for me when the protagonist owes his doom to his own sins and failings. Still, even that stuff goes down best in small doses.