The Atlantic does not know what to do with fiction. Because Stephen King ragged on their publication, they’ve stopped publishing their fiction issue and are now publishing a cultural issue with only two short stories in it, surrounded by considerable fluff. Also, not only did The Atlantic change their approach to publishing short stories when criticized by King, but they also decided it’s best to publish his work instead.
With that out of the way, “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” by Stephen King is an enjoyable and saddening story. In an interview, King speaks about losing a bet to son over the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and having to write a short story with a title of his son’s choice. Yes, Herman Wouk is a real person.
The story opens with a news clipping about two adults and seven children dying in a traffic accident along I-95. What’s that do? It’s more than foreshadowing, it’s telling the reader this is the end. Be ready for it. Personally, I feel like this is unnecessary. Was it part of showing the writing process that this clip was included? In any case, we know what’s going to happen, and we spend the rest of the time waiting for it to happen. It’s one thing I would cut from the story.
The story skips between two sets of characters whose paths will cross due to the accident. It starts with two trodden women, Brenda and Jasmine, who have seven small children between them. King writes these women with compassion. They are not caricatures. They are not two-dimensional. They are people who exist in any town, but especially in rural areas where opportunities seem few and tough choices are plentiful.
The other characters are two aged poets on their way to a speaking engagement at a university. Again, King has a knack for describing his characters, and these two are described well, but feel like they slip toward stereotype — liberal, elites sipping wine while having a picnic along the road.
The story builds slow, but then comes together through the accident, which literally brings all the characters together. At the end, the imagery is moving as the two poets try to help. The ending also hits in a way that stays with the reader. What do poets do? Poets arrange language. They impose their view of the world with language. They observe. When one of the poets speaks not as a woman, but with that label of poet it gives her words more weight in the story. The words she uses are both humorous and commonplace, but the effect is quite moving.
Not only does “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” entertain, but it looks at life and the choices people make. The poets, Phil and Pauline, feel diminished. They lived life and now are settling in for the end. They take solace in the fact that besides Herman Wouk being alive, he’s also still writing. Life continues. Endings don’t have to be written. Then again, what does that mean in the context of nine deaths? It’s unsettling and emotional. King doesn’t resolve any of this, but how could he? The ending works because it’s complex and full of grief. The reader is in the same place as the poets, struggling to make sense of a world where tragedies and wonder overlap.