Before two weeks ago, I hadn't read a Stephen King novel for over a decade, having last read one in 2002 or 2003. That had been Christine, a book about...a demonic car. Some years before that, I had read It, an epic work about...a demonic clown. I had liked both of those works, and have long thought that I would probably enjoy reading more of Stephen King's voluminous oeuvre. Being a frequent used book shopper, King's works are very easy to find, and they seemed to be easy enough to read that I always was planning to pick more up, if only for the purposes of having something to read on a long bus ride. But there wasn't a compelling reason to, for me: with all the other reading material, both "high" and "low" out there, why would I go out of my way to read about demonic clowns, cars or some other schlocky premise, no matter how well executed?
And then about two weeks ago, I was at a thrift store and picked out the first two volumes of The Green Mile, because they were small and could be read on a long bus ride. And as I got to reading, I discovered a story that was not schlocky at all, but an involved character study whose supernatural elements are kept to a minimum. Not that there is anything wrong with genre fiction, but this is not genre fiction: this is a work of suspense and psychological and social realism that uses supernatural elements to get to its main point.
The story of the Green Mile, originally published as six small volumes in serial, and then collected into a larger novel, is the story of a harried, tough yet humane prison guard, Paul Edgecomb, living in the Great Depression. Paul is the head guard on the titular "Green Mile", the Death Row at a prison in an unnamed Southern state. Paul's job is mostly to keep the prisoners calm as they approach their deaths. As the story begins, his calm is broken up from a number of directions: the arrival of a strangely quiet child murderer named John Coffey, a brain tumor in the mind of the prison warden's wife, a well-connected underling who is an officious and cruel martinet, and a painful urinary tract infection. Over the course of the six books that make up the story, these elements come together in a variety of ways, with red herrings and cyclical plot elements popping up. Each book has its own plot cycle, as does the entire serial.
What makes this a worthwhile book to me is how well it juxtaposes so many aspects of life. While dealing with murderers and rapists, what bothers Paul is a urinary tract infection and annoying co-workers. The book juxtaposes the fantastic and the mundane as real. Along with the book's supernatural storyline, it seems to be a detailed work on prison operation (although there was probably much artistic license taken).
And out of this basic plot, and out of a dozen or so main characters, Stephen King manages to write a book about so many things. This is a book that talks about aging, family responsibility, sickness, social justice, race, gender, American history, regional differences, generational differences, The Great Depression, human cruelty, religion, violence, the criminal justice system, pain, death, capital punishment, and the miraculous. There is a lot going on here. Not all of it something we should accept uncritically: this book could be seen to be a Magical Negro story, about an illiterate but saintly black man who uses his (literally) magical powers to help white people's problems, before politely going to his death. But the fact that parts of the work are "problematic" does not mean that it is not a valuable and interesting book on many levels.
I liked this book and am now interested in reading much more of Stephen King's work, especially books that are more psychological horror than about demonic clowns.