Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

Ex-detective Bill Hodges spends his afternoons slouched in front of the TV, watching the sort of trashy daytime show where trashy people get goaded by a trashy studio audience into slanging matches and fist-fights. As he watches, he toys with his father’s service revolver, occasionally pointing it into his mouth. Recently retired, he’s dwelling on the failure he’s made of his life: the failure of his marriage, his failure to sustain a relationship with his daughter, the purposelessness of it all now he’s retired. A part of that failure is that he didn’t get to finish some of his bigger cases; among them, the man who ploughed a stolen Mercedes into a queue of unemployed people outside a job-seekers’ fair. Then, amidst a litter of advertising mail (more trash in his already trash-filled life), there’s a letter. Signed “THE MERCEDES KILLER”, it’s both a confession and a challenge. It’s also the killer’s attempt to add one more to his tally: Mr Mercedes is goading Bill Hodges into killing himself. But instead, it galvanises him. Fed up of wallowing in his own fallibility, Hodges decides to use his retirement to track down this monster.

Meanwhile, there’s Brady Hartsfield, a man in his mid twenties living at home with his alcoholic mother. He holds down two low-paid jobs, one as a call-out computer-fixer for people whose inability to understand their computers he despises, and the other as an ice-cream man, feeding kids whose greed for sweet things he also despises. In fact, Brady Hartsfield despises everyone. He’s like the walking embodiment of those TV shows Hodges is getting too used to watching: Brady is a free-floating racist, sexist, everything-ist despiser of all that’s not himself. Brady also has a weird, frankly incestuous relationship with his mother. And in the basement — his Control Centre — he has a row of laptops, from which he plans his next move. His first move was stealing a Mercedes and driving it into a crowd of human trash; his next, to goad the owner of the Mercedes — a rich, mentally fragile widow — into ending her life. Now, he’s working on Bill Hodges.

I thought I’d give Stephen King another go because I was in need of a dose of old-fashioned storytelling — the sort that keeps you sticking with it for one more chapter, just one more chapter, and King’s good at that. This time, though, I went with one of his non-supernatural novels, so he couldn’t go over the top with shocks and gloop at the expense of story logic. And, in terms of storytelling momentum, Mr Mercedes certainly delivers. Alternating between the lives of the newly-galvanised Bill Hodges, and the walking sump of resentment that is Brady Hartsfield, King keeps the story ticking along. But as the book approached the end, I realised that, though I do love a really gripping story, I also need a bit more. I need the story to mean something, to add up to more than just x-hours of reading. And add up to what? I think I want some sort of statement about what it means to be human. That, as well as an absorbing read, is what I go to stories for.

The parallel storylines in Mr Mercedes of course invite a comparison between the two main characters (as do those initials, though I’ve only just noticed it — BH and BH — though Hodges’ actual first name is Kermit). Bill Hodges is very human, in both his failures, and the way he stirs himself from that post-retirement apathy to find some meaning in his life again. Human beings, however low they go, can always find a way up again. Brady Hartsfield, on the other hand, is simply evil, a monster, something other — he’s crossed the line. King does give us one passage, a sort of sub-Nietzschean amalgam of second-hand nihilisms that attempt to get us into his way of thinking:

“Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.”

But really what it comes down to is this:

‘He’s broken,’ Hodges says simply. ‘And evil. Like an apple that looks okay on the outside, but when you cut it open, it’s black and full of worms.’

‘Evil,’ she says, almost sighing the word. Then, to herself rather than him: ‘Of course he is. He battened on my sister like a vampire.’

Now I’ve finished the book, and had a chance to stand back and think about it, I think what Mr Mercedes is about is the baser parts of human nature, and how we deal with them. Those trashy tabloid-style afternoon TV shows that wallow in depravity, prurience, and the mess other people make of their lives is at the heart of it. As the book starts, Hodges is teetering on the brink of falling into that particular abyss, and of viewing his own life in those terms. Brady Hartsfield, on the other hand, is already in so deep he can’t see anything but — and it’s not just the worthless unemployed he kills and maims at the start of the book, but the kids hungry for the worthless sweetness of ice-creams he serves from his ice-cream van (“Everybody likes the ice cream man.” — King’s good at a catch-phrase), and in the mess people make of their computers, leaving icons and half-downloaded trash everywhere. Everything that makes people human is what he despises. And for him, the only logical response is to make some grand statement about how worthless all human life is: by killing himself and taking as many of them with him as possible. But something bugs him:

“The fat ex-cop bugs Brady Hartsfield. Bugs him bad. Hodges retired with full honors, they even threw him a party, and how was that right when he had failed to catch the most notorious criminal this city had ever seen?”

What bugs him is that other people can see beyond the failure, the worthlessness, and still find something to celebrate and reward in their fellow humans.

Hartsfield decides to make one final big statement. There’s an upcoming concert of the sort of trashy boy-band that pre-teen girls go mad for. For Hartsfield, this is the perfect expression of the worthlessness of human lives and ambitions. But to the girls at the show, however trashy the rest of us might think this boy-band is, it’s the most meaningful day of their lives — genuinely meaningful, in a way Hartsfield could never comprehend. The most meaningful day of his life was the day he ploughed into that queue in a stolen Mercedes.

King has spent a career dwelling on the trash-line — his own novels are thought by some to be trash, by others to be “proper literature”, but perhaps this is the point, that he’s writing both at once, because being human isn’t about one or the other; it’s about both.

Mr Mercedes was as good a read as I was hoping for, but not a great read. Still, not to be able to appreciate it for this reason would seem a little, I don’t know… Hartsfield-esque…

Comments (3)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I’ve been meaning to check this book out for a while, mainly because I’ve been reading a lot of King lately, and for the same reasons as you – I enjoy his ability to spin a story, even if the end result is often unsatisfying. I blame the latter on how the thematic focus of King’s books tends to be so broad as to be often meaningless. For example, ‘Apt Pupil’ has the boy run repeatedly over a dying bird with his bicycle after being exposed to the corrosive influence of an elderly nazi. Evil begets evil, King seems to be saying. But this ignores how the Nazis constituted a very specific kind of evil, a failure of idealogy.

    In ‘Mr Mercedes’ (and I’m basing my impressions on your review, I hasten to add) King seems to be arguing that a contempt for all ‘low’ culture, ignores how some simple pleasures have real merit – ice-cream, for example. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that this is how King sees himself – as the Ice Cream man* (there may well be a pun of the ‘I scream’ variety in there somewhere) while also making a distinction between what he does and other aspects of low culture that are more questionable – ie, exploitative chat shows. Maybe there’s a deliberate corollory between the sort of people who produce and orchestrate these shows and Brady Hartsfield? Both share a basic contempt for the common man while also pandering to him. This is fairly representative of King – ie, the book has a discernible theme, but (and again, I’m just guessing here) he doesn’t bring it into sufficiently sharp focus. Hatred of the common man usually has a more specific origin than a hatred of the culture that the common man reveres; ie, it is a symptom rather than an explanation.

    * so why have the villain an ice cream man? I think King may be making a crucial distinction here. King doesn’t despise his customers, whereas Hartsfield does. King believes in what he is doing. Hartsfield is a cynic. The honest vendor of low culture is a man of unimpeachable integrity: the cynical vendor of low culture an out-and-out villain.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment!

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    Thanks indeed for the lengthy comment!

    I think you’ve got it right when you say “the thematic focus of King’s books tends to be so broad as to be often meaningless”. I have to admit I finished Mr Mercedes feeling let down by how it didn’t seem to have a meaning, a theme, and it was only thinking about it afterwards that I came to what I wrote about above. So, I’m not sure if it was because King didn’t really highlight it enough in the book, or because I missed it when reading. Certainly, I was disappointed King didn’t really give us a good reason behind Hartsfield’s evil, which would have nailed down a meaning for the book once and for all.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I remember noticing the same problem with ‘it’ – it touched on a lot of themes about childhood, the power of imagination – but these ideas never cohered into an actual point.

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