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The state police of Troop D. in Statler, Pennsylvania, have kept the mysterious, vintage Buick Roadmaster caged in Shed B out in back of the barracks ever since 1979, when Troopers Ennis Rafferty and Curtis Wilcox answered a call about its driver gone missing from a gas station just down the road. Mostly it sleeps (that's one way of putting it, anyway), and over the years the troop has absorbed its mystery as part of the background to their work. But even as it sleeps, it breathesinhaling a little bit of this world, exhaling a little bit of whatever world it came from...until the fateful day when its terrifying secrets are finally revealed.
Maybe those who believe that Stephen King doesn't deserve his bestselling success think that reading should be more like work than fun. Though it would be difficult to mistake even a sentence by this populist purveyor of horror and supernatural suspense for one of Don DeLillo's, King takes such palpable delight in spinning his talesin using his imagination to engage and enrich the reader'sthat the pleasure lies more in how he tells the story than in the story itself. The result might not be "literature," but this creative writing is most certainly an art.
In From a Buick 8 (its title is a reference to a Bob Dylan song), action takes a backseat to King's framing of the story and the voices through which it is told. After the death of State Trooper Curtis Wilcox, his eighteen-year-old son, Ned, starts hanging around with the other officers, trying to hold on to the memory of his dad. Over the course of one long day, Sergeant Commanding Sandy Dearborn, who had been Curt's best friend on the force, decides to share with Ned a very strange story that has remained a secret among the troopers since before the son's birth.
The story concerns a Buick Roadmaster (or is it?), which was abandoned under mysterious circumstances and has remained secretly impounded by these state troopers in the Amish countryside of western Pennsylvania. Every once in a while, the vehicle has erupted in a surge of light and energy.
Such cataclysms have left strange corpses in their wake, while some witnesses to these "lightquakes" have disappeared. Since no trooper was more obsessed with the vehicle than Curt Wilcox, there has been some conjecture about the Buick's complicityin his death, through a fatal accident caused by a drunk driver. (In an afterword, King describes the eerie coincidence of drafting the plot before his own near-fatal encounter with a reckless driver.)
Most of this story is related in retrospect, summoned from memory, with Sandy sharing secrets as a means of bringing the son closer to his father and welcoming Ned into the trooper family. This framing device is crucial, elevating what could have been a pulpy tale of the supernatural into a meditation on the chains that link father and son, the present and the past. (This is not merely the story of a car with a mind of its own. King did that decades ago with Christine.)
As the chapters shift back and forth between then and now, the narrative conjures the spirit of a communal campfire tale, with other troopers providing their reminiscences of Curt's deepening obsession and the escalating intensity of the Roadmaster's responses. Their collective story is less concerned with pseudoscientific explanations than with the physical sensations of being there, how it felt (and looked and smelled) for these men to find themselves at the place where "our familiar universe stops and the real blackness begins."
While Sandy is initially a bit player in the story he spins and Ned is a passive, spellbound listener, the tension that eventuallyinevitablydevelops between the two sparks the climax. As the hours pass and the story progresses, the distinctions between present and past collapse, as does the line separating the father's obsession from his son's.
"We'd become quite a little council of elders ... surrounding the young fellow, singing him our warrior-songs of the past," says Sandy, reinforcing the mythic element of the narrative. "And what about when those songs were done? If Ned had been a young Indian brave, he might have been sent out on some sort of dream questkill the right animal, have the right vision while the blood of the animal's heart was still smeared around his mouth, come back a man. If there could be some sort of test at the end of this, I reflected, some way in which Ned could demonstrate new maturity and understanding, things might have been a lot simpler. But that's not the way things work nowadays."
Ultimately, Ned needs something more from Sandy's story than Sandy feels it can provide. Like his father, Ned seeks answers from the Buick, and Sandy insists there aren't any. For Sandy, the tale of the Roadmaster can't begin to resolve the random tragedy of Curt's death. Ned wants what the troopers can't give him; he wants his dad back.
In 2000's On Writing (where King discusses From a Buick 8 as a work in progress), he states that "if there is any one thing I love about writing more than the rest, it's that sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects." As long as the story remains in the past, Sandy maintains control over it, but he finds himself surprised at the chain of events as the action spins into the future.
Though Sandy believes that the "childish insistence that the story must have an ending and the ending must hold some kind of answer" is "a lie," King's compact with his readership affirms a deeper connection. For the reader, From a Buick 8 ends the way it must.