Reading The Tommyknockers Again as an Adult

I’m 37 and gravity works on me. I don’t run marathons or have talent for the feminine arts. I haven’t brought forth life, but I’m thickening through the middle and losing elasticity anyway. I’ve experienced the dizzying fall from being fresh-faced, coltish, and treated like a minor celebrity in a crowded bar just for being a pretty girl. Now I’m tromping around in the shallow end of the dating pool, faded and invisible. It’s only going to get worse from here, but that’s ok. I was prepared for this decades ago by Stephen King’s novel, The Tommyknockers.

 Part One:  Bobbi Anderson’s Last Fuckable Day

Before I re-read The Tommyknockers earlier this month, all I could remember was the sex scene between Jim Gardener and Bobbi Anderson. Jim remembered her body from before, but now she was actually turning into an alien. She was shorter, stumpier, with see-through skin, no teeth, and her breasts turning into a sort of uniboob slab lying on her torso. He could recognize her from before, but just barely. It was literally her last fuckable day (thank you Amy Schumer for this term), because her vagina was turning into a mass of tentacles.

I read this the first time I was eleven or twelve, mind you. The Tommyknockers was published in 1988 when I was ten. My brother was three years older. My mom worked at a bookstore. She would have used her discount to buy him a copy when it came out in paperback. He would have wolfed it down and left it lying around. That’s when I would have got my hands on it.

It was just one of many things I read that I was too young to read. I don’t know how carefully I read it, because I mostly just remembered that sex scene. Back then, any kind of sex was a grotesque to me. Vanilla sex was a little stomach-turning. So sex in the woods, with one of the participants well on her way to becoming an alien—that stuck with me. And then after getting breasts, starting my period, gaining weight, losing weight, gaining weight, thinking about eggs, and starting to feel old, I remembered—Tommyknockers, Tommyknockers, knocking at the door.

Part Two:  Hey, that Sex Scene Was Gratuitous!

I picked up The Tommyknockers again on a lark. I planned to just skim through it and find that sex scene again, but I was shellacked by the first couple pages. Bobbi was 37, exactly my age! The book starts with her as a normal human woman, looking in the mirror and reflecting on how she’s not 25 anymore, and assessing how her body has changed and how she holding up. We’re in her head, she’s smart and mirthful, a bit of an over-thinker. She has her period and Stephen King casual and unflinching about it. It’s funny. Well, I’ll be damned, Stephen King. Spot on.

Our time in Bobbi’s head ends on page 67; that’s 9.3% of the way through the book. By the time the sex scene with Jim Gardener rolls around on page 502, we’re long accustomed to seeing Bobbi from the outside. She’s an inscrutable object. She’s as much a machine as the contraptions she makes now that she’s juiced on alien energy and turning into an alien herself. Jim watches her for signs of the old Bobbi and we see recurring flickers of her humanity, but it’s only ever from the outside. When they have sex, it’s only from Jim’s perspective, marveling at how her body has changed.

The sex scene itself, I see now, is dumb. It’s totally uneccessary. It’s just a sensational little fillip tossed into the narrative. Jim and Bobbi were only ever good friends (and ex-lovers) in the rest of the book. They never needed to actually have sex in order for Bobbi’s changes or their unraveling connection to be illustrated.

Still, I love realizing that the book starts out from Bobbi’s point of view and then takes her voice away from her for the entire rest of the story. In a way that’s the most subversively feminist thing Stephen King could have done, intentionally or not.

 Part Three:  Ruth McCausland, the Real McCoy

I forgot all about Ruth McCausland until I re-read the book, but she might be the more interesting female character to dwell on. We saw Bobbi’s physical changes through Jim’s eyes. We see Ruth watch her own mind change, from the inside. The part of The Tommyknockers that jumps inside Ruth is a long set piece in the middle of the book. She’s fifty, she’s the town constable, she’s a bit of an eccentric loner but she is loved and respected by the town. She’s had to deal with childlessness and solitude and aging. I really like this portrayal of her, and I think it’s empathetic. One of my favorite parts is when King writes, “She was not as calmly happy about her work as she seemed to the people she was working for. It would have taken a child to completely fulfill her. There was nothing surprising or demeaning in this. She was, after all, a child of her own time, and even the very intelligent are not immune to a steady barrage of propaganda.” That’s good. I laughed out loud. It’s a little mean, but so is life. I think King gets away with writing with intimate sarcasm without seeming dismissive. He’s a mimic, and it feels like he’s taking a break from channeling a folksy male novelist in order to tongue-in-cheek channel a white 1980s female novelist like Anne Tyler. I’ve read a lot of those books too, and the strength of King’s parody is a form of respect in my eyes. I know I might be giving him too much credit. I don’t care.

 Part Four:  A Tale of Two Writers

The book starts with Bobbi Anderson and veers to other people like Ruth McCausland, but the continuous main character is Jim Gardener. Threaded throughout the book in Jim’s mind, in our minds, is this theme: Jim is just such a fucking loser. Jim almost killed himself and then he didn’t. Jim maybe should have just killed himself already. So everything else that happens is just extra. It’s gravy. He’s on borrowed time, he’s a drunk, who cares if he dies. This builds even as we get to know and love Jim more and more.

I think this is a tale of two writers. Bobbi Anderson was the workmanlike, sane writer who batted out one Western after another and made a decent living. I think Stephen King thinks of Bobbi as the same sort of writer he is. Probably capable of literary writing, but mostly a craftsman who knocks out crowd-pleasers.

Jim Gardener is like the short story writer and poet, Raymond Carver. Completely literary. Like Jim Gardener, Carver was brilliant and at times a wreck. He was earthy but lived impractically. His writing was understated and lethal. He was a drunk and he died too young, just like Jim Gardener. I know that Stephen King admires Raymond Carver, because I went to a lecture of King’s when I was 20 and he told us that. Then he read us a story he wrote purposely in the style of Raymond Carver. It was called “L.T.’s Theory of Pets” and got a bit ghoulish near the end.

I love Raymond Carver too, ever since 8th grade. I was in Southeast Alaska and his coastal poems and stories were my first experience with great writing that was regional in a way I could feel. It was a slowness and the way the words sounded together as much as the imagery. I heard traces of Raymond Carver throughout The Tommyknockers, reading it again. I think Stephen King’s horror works because he imbues his stories with enough real life, earthy horror and real life humor that it matters to us—who lives, who dies, who falls to pieces mentally.

It’s Bobbi Anderson (the genre writer) who knocks out a literary tour de force with alien help. The typescript amazes Jim (the poet) almost more than anything else that happens. It’s by far her best work. Jim, on the other hand, just does manual labor, drinks, and her mopes nervously until the end. But then, it’s largely Jim’s own thoughts and actions that telegraph the story to the reader.

Conclusion                                                                                                                      

I went back to The Tommyknockers because I was dogged by the body horror. I went back because it sounded like an entertaining way to do due diligence on an essay I wanted to write for annoyed-at-life, feminist reasons. But I came away with a bushel of other stuff. As an ex-lover once said to me in a relationship post-op, all that really matters in the end is the writing. All pain is fodder for storytelling. All writers are cameras. Maybe I used to play the visible ingénue, but even then I was an observer first. And I can keep that game up until I’m a gnarled crone.

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