Thinner by Stephen King – review

ThinnerThinner by Richard Bachman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of all the literary theories, some of my favorites are the Derridian Pharmakon analysis, the Lacanian Mirror Stage, and the Freudian Theory of the Uncanny. The others would take entire posts – or multiple posts – to explain, but the Theory of the Uncanny is so wonderfully simple that I can explain it in three sentences: Ask yourself what about the story makes you uncomfortable. Figure out why it makes you uncomfortable. That’s what the story is about.

That sounds waaaaay too easy, but I’m always surprised by how often it works. It also changes moments in the stories you read from ones that disturb or offend you into moments of clarity as to the meaning of the story. When something really gets under your skin, Freud’s voice pops up in your head and asks why, and then you have this light-bulb moments about the true nature of the story.

I also has the added benefit of meaning that there are multiple “correct” interpretations of a story, as each interpretation becomes an intensely personal examination of each reader’s personal feelings and cultural sensibilities. Since what bothers people about a particular text may be very different based on their sensibilities, the corresponding analysis as to what the offending text was about will also vary wildly.

This theory comes easiest to me when reading Stephen King, because there’s always at least one moment that gets under my skin. That’s kind of the point of King, especially early King. And before anyone comments, it has been 30 years. I’m calling him King and not Bachman. It’s been 30 years.

What bothers me about Thinner isn’t the disgusting descriptions of popping pimple-ridden faces or human flesh transforming into alligator scales or the bulging, convulsing living pie or anything else as outwardly gory of that nature. What bothers me is the treatment of the Gypsy people.

At around the one-quarter mark my delicate modern sensibilities started to get more than a little offended, and I started to think to myself: man, this would never be written today. There were just too many horrible ethnic stereotypes about what was and remains one of the last people it is for some reason considered culturally acceptable to harass, mock, and malign. The Gypsies in Thinner are chased from town to town, only ever allowed to stay until “one of the good folk complains” and then shooed away. The Gypsy patriarch Lemke is described as having a rotting cancerous nose, and the entire plot of the novel centers around their being able to inflict literal curses on people to make them waste away, turn into animals, or become plague-ridden.

Just think about that. This isn’t some fictional mystical creation King dreamed up in that wonderful imagination of his: this is a real people, and these are real stereotypes and problems, and this book from a popular author makes no qualms about professing them to be true. That’d be like if today someone wrote a book that prominently featured men of African decent as villains and showed that yes, they really did go around “raping our women.” It is mind-bogglingly ethnocentric and was really unpalatable to digest during my reading of the story, despite the story being genuinely gripping and suspenseful.

And then that little Freudian voice in the back of my skull piped up and went: what if that’s the point? What if it’s not that the book is racist and ethnocentric, but that it’s actually shining a light on how racist and ethnocentric these ideas are? And despite it remaining that the central plot revolves around members of the Gypsy community being able to curse people, beyond that the Gypsies themselves aren’t portrayed as typical villains. They don’t have the agency or the desire or the maliciousness that villains typically have. In fact, they come off much more as the sad victims of this story.

After being constantly run out of town after town and being forced to “move along” as soon as their presence offends any of the townspeople or local police, the matriarch of their family is run down in the street by Billy Halleck, the novel’s protagonist, while he receives an impromptu handjob from his wife. While there was no malicious intent to the accident, it’s clearly a case of negligence, but the investigation is brushed aside by all parts of the law because the driver was one of “the townspeople” and the victims was “one of those outsiders.” Clear xenophobia. When the patient Gypsies don’t see justice down, Lemke takes matters into his own hands and curses Billy, the investigating officer, and the judge before the whole family skip down. The opening shot here wasn’t Lamke and his curse, but the fact that ethnocentrism prevented real justice from being done: that the American Justice System did not provide justice for all Americans equally, if at all.

It doesn’t hurt that Halleck is the personification of the too-privileged 1%. A morbidly-obese white lawyer who works little and gets paid much, with a gorgeous wife and daughter who both adore him and a law firm bending over backwards to make him partner. He and the victim of his vehicular negligence could not have been farther apart on the social scale, and the results of the investigation prove that.

Until Halleck eventually leaves his family in desperation to hunt down the Gypsy caravan though, its not clear as the whether or not King had intended for any of these deeper meanings of ethnocentrism to be present in the text. The Gypsies are viewed only at a distance, as that alien other. But when Halleck tracks them down to their home — and especially enlists the help of a mob boos he’s done legal work for nicknamed ‘The Hammer’ — it becomes clear that the protagonists of this story are not who we were initially believed to be. Now it’s Halleck and The Hammer invading the Gypsy Caravan, threatening the lives of innocent children and murdering pets and generally embarking on a campaign of terrorism in order to frighten Lemke into lifting the curse.

The final straw comes when Halleck is willing (and in fact, eager) to shift his curse onto his wife, whom he blames for performing the sexual favor on him while he was driving. Due to a cruel twist of fate though it also affects his young daughter, and in the ending sentences Halleck himself decides to take the curse on himself again so that they can all die together.

There’s a strong moral there about the futility of vengeance. What started out as a tragic but ultimately blameless (morally if not financially) accident becomes the spark that ignites a cycle of vengeance that consumes all involved. In the end nobody got what they wanted and everyone was doomed by this simple act, the only thing that really thrived was vengeance itself. In the end Thinner is a story about vengeance and about the xenophobic, ethnocentric ways we treat those deemed alien from us. It is a novel about justice and how it works against those who seek it the most ardently, especially to the deference of all else.

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