Arresting Terry Maitland at the Estelle Barga Ballfield had been the first domino, the one that started a chain reaction of violence and misery.
Truer words were never spoken in Flint City, Oklahoma. Stephen King’s latest offering is outside of his comfort zone, leaving his home-state, comfort-food setting of Maine and headed to the Bible Belt (which, graciously, doesn’t figure into the plot) and setting us up for a really disturbing ride. As always with King, especially in this latter-day era, the novel comes with its ups an downs and all the segments in-between, but the good outweighs the bad and that’s more than I could have said for the Bill Hodges trilogy.
After the discovery of Frankie Peterson’s body, a young ginger boy that has been…let’s call it “savaged” for now, police officer Ralph Anderson arrests the main suspect very publicly. This man, Terry Maitland, is a beloved English teacher and coach of little league in town that claims his innocence as he is arrested in front of not only 1200 spectators at a local game but also his family. Things, predictably, spiral out of control from here.
Normally I get some disturbing things in my King fiction, particularly early on in the plot, because that’s how he gut punches you. This is his normal way of gripping you into his modern plots, from the vicious story of the “black grampa” in Doctor Sleep to the introductory violence of Revival (Charlie Jacobs shouting “Where is my son’s face?” will continue to haunt me). Here, however, he seems unleashed and almost angry. The first bit is clunky about including a random social commentary, but almost immediately we’re dropped into the knowledge that the boy was not just savaged – he was sexually violated and partially eaten. All of this is revealed in graphic detail and the evidence against Maitland mounts but the doubt remains and this drives us to our midway points.
The complications of an aggressive, small-town police procedural have been aided by the legal advice of a father/son lawyer duo that were consulted to give authenticity to the way this goes down and it shows. Entire early segments are logged as police interviews and memos from the county medical examiner that retain King’s folksy, blue-collar tone that made him someone we could connect with in the first place. Contained in these segments are the disturbing specifics of the victim’s death and it is not for anyone with a weak stomach.
Characterization here is also key, as well as world-building. King can get lost in things – his settings, his lore, his character work, and those things are well balanced here. You care about Ralph Anderson, about Terry Maitland and his wife Marcy, and about later entries Howie Goldman and Alec Pelley. But it’s the characters introduced later, those like Holly Gibney, a character from the Bill Hodges trilogy, that make things touchy. While the character is solid and fascinating it is hard to completely grasp where she came from. We’re told often and loudly that she has come a long way, from crippling depression and suicidal tendencies to nervous but admirably capable detective, and that she learned her confidence from Bill Hodges before his death. That’s all great but…this was not billed as a sequel to that trilogy, and anyone who has not read it (and it isn’t great, just interesting) will only see the thin character that is presented. She’s going to draw Mary Sue arguments and that’s unfair to her, but it’s on King for his presentation and for requiring homework to follow.
Another weaker moment is the grand finale but this shouldn’t surprise King fans, who have developed a bit of mythology around the man that includes his issues with ending a novel with rare exceptions. Here the end is acceptable, but the showdown is one of the most anti-climactic, Tim Burtony things I’ve read in a long while and I was let down after 500 pages of build-up.
This doesn’t detract from some of the high points of the novel though. The first 200 pages are so gripping and heartbreaking that it could sustain your interest from there on, and it’s a testament to the plot that it manages to stay fascinating throughout as we begin splitting up between Flint City with Ralph, Dayton with Holly, Marysville with Bolton, and Cap City with Alec Pelley. The breakup of characters allows pieces of the puzzle to begin to show but where he goes with them is kept for a reveal and it’s rather fascinating but ultimately I think it needed to be seeded much earlier than it was.
This is worth your time, particularly for King fans as a whole and fans of the Bill Hodges trilogy specifically. It’s disturbing, it’s creepy, and it really sinks into the entrails of one of the more disturbing child murders I’ve seen on-page. He’s done better, even recently with Revival and some of the shorts in The Bizarre of Bad Dreams, but by the time you turn the final page most fans will consider The Outsider a good piece of work and an eerie read to meander through in your evenings. From Oklahoma to Ohio to Texas, it does a decent job capturing the cultures (from what I know of them) and gives us some solid characters to grapple with.