“What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?/ Or fester like a sore—/ and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over—/ Like a syrupy sweet?/ Maybe it just sags/ like a heavy load. / Or does it explode?”— Langston Hughes, Harlem
Stephen King’s Finders Keepers is a story about literature and obsession. It is a contemporary, murder-thriller novel that hails to the good old American Dream literary canon.
The story features Morris Bellamy, Pete Saubers and fictional author John Rothstein’s Jimmy Gold trilogy. Gold is a Kerouac-esque American hero, the exceptional rebel, “an American icon of despair in a land of plenty” (King 13). In the trilogy’s final third, however, Gold settles down with his wife and two kids in their suburban home, a grill in the backyard, a Ford in the driveway and a job in advertising to boot. Bellamy, who has fallen in love with Gold, is horrified at this, at what he sees as Gold selling out. He gives the elderly Rothstein a visit, in which he steals money, the notebooks containing the last two handwritten Jimmy Gold novel manuscripts, and kills Rothstein. Back home, he buries the notebooks in a trunk, gets blackout drunk in a fit of anger with his friend Halliday, and rapes someone, getting himself a life sentence in jail. The novel then fast-forwards to Saubers, whose family now lives in Morris’ old house. He accidentally discovers the trunk, metafictionally echoing how Finders Keepers itself is an unearthing of a somewhat forgotten treasure—of 19th century American Dream’s literature. He uses the money to pull his parents out of debt and reads the notebooks. As precious as they are to him, he finally decides to sell them to Halliday, now a rare book seller. It is then that Morris gets released on parole. He is finally, finally going to read the notebooks, and is murderously angry to find out they’ve been stolen. The only thing standing in his way is retired officer Bill Hodges and his team, who find out about about Saubers’ predicament in the nick of time.
A treasure trove of intertextuality, Finders Keepers is a simultaneously a nod to and a criticism of the American Dream, especially as it is portrayed in literature. King engages with the two juxtapositional sides of the American dream coin: heads and tails. Head: a bust of the rugged, vagabonding, ever westward-traveling, ultimately juvenile white American male. Tail: Herbert Hoover’s “a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage.” The American literary canon has always cherished a wall of fame celebrating the former— such books are burned into the literary consciousness as cult classics usually featuring some sort of rogue hero. Bellamy idolises his literary hero, Gold— a conglomeration of sorts of various protagonists in stories such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fight Club and On the Road. He fancies himself a Sal Paradise-esque, self-made rebel— refusing to settle down, to buy into the idea of the Golden Buck, (“Shit don’t mean shit” a favourite saying of Jimmy Gold) holding tight to the idea that he is different, made for something better than everyone else. To the idea that he is exceptional— “I am a scholar,” he thinks to himself. (177). The other face of the American Dream is another version of success, the cold wake-up-call Bellamy rejects; the realisation that Dean Moriarty can only run so far as the San Franciscan Bay, where, upon finding nothing but emptiness, he has to turn back and go home, his fantasy-rigged adventure over. The third Jimmy Gold novel, The Runner Slows Down, acknowledges this— it is Steinback’s The Grapes of Wrath’s family’s need to survive, The Death of a Salesman’s Loman’s mediocre reality rephrased.
Bellamy spends nearly 40 years in jail, during which he does not change his mind about and desire for the notebooks at all, and emerges from this hibernation of sorts a biologically older version of his essentially younger self. Like Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, he remains in a stubborn state of immaturity. At the novel’s climax, a stand-off between Saubers, his sister Tina whom Bellamy kidnaps, Bellamy and Hodges, Saubers accidentally sets the entire pile of notebook on fire in a bid to distract Bellamy from hurting his sister. In response, Bellamy goes completely insane, and dies a horrific death, his flesh melting off his face as he burns to death trying in vain to save the notebooks: “a charred scarecrow kneels in there, digging into the burning notebooks with arms made of fire. Morris’s face is melting. He shrieks and begins hugging the blazing, dissolving remains of Rothstein’s work to his burning chest” (495). In the two final unpublished Gold novels which Bellamy never gets to read, The Runner Goes West and The Runner Raises the Flag, Jimmy Gold reverts back to his roots, taking off westward. These books never get read by Bellamy, going up in a pile of ashes. Peter Rugg never reaches his resolution— essentially, Gold remains the suburban-living, Ford-driving failure to Bellamy. The only thing that kept Bellamy alive during those intervening years in jail was the hope of Jimmy Gold’s reversal to heroism; it is the death of this hope that drives him to his own tragic end. Bellamy lives and is sustained only through a figment of literary fantasy. Through Bellamy-and-Gold, this pairing the embodiment of the American Dream gone wrong, King raises poignant questions about the nature of the American Dream. Is it only as legitimate and substantial as its literature— essentially figments of people’s imaginations? Has it always existed only within the confines of the literature in which it is contained and articulated?
On the other hand, Saubers, who also falls in love with Rothstein’s Jimmy Gold trilogy in his own way, walks away from the notebooks. There is a part of him that pulls him toward them initially, makes him hoard them for years: “he knows exactly how this lunatic [Bellamy] feels. Exactly how. He lit up with the same excitement, the same amazement… Tears actually came to his eyes. Such tears, Pete realises—yes, even now, especially because their lives hang upon it—mark the core power of make-believe” (489). Despite their siren song, he recognises the novels as but “make-believe”. Saubers brings Bellamy’s Peter Rugg home.
He goes home to his family, whom he loves, to his life, to reality. Saubers’ choice of reality over fantasy is what saves him, is what prevents him from reaching the same fanatic, tragic end as Bellamy. “He thinks, that could have been me on fire./ He thinks, No. Because I know the difference. I know what matters./ He thinks, Please God, if you’re there… let that be true” (495). As the novel builds towards its climax, the standoff, Saubers attends a conference where a senator speaks to Saubers’ class about the passing of the torch of democracy to the next generation who will carry out its vital work. Perhaps suggests not the death, but a revision of, the American Dream. The passing of the torch; its resultant growing up. The maturation of Rip Van Winkle. The realisation that “a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage” is not necessarily a failure, but perhaps a salvation of the American Dream. Sal Paradise returning to his Aunt’s home working a regular job. Perhaps Saubers’s “let that be true” is King’s metaphysical plea for America. The question to the reader: which character has truly failed at the American Dream? Jimmy Gold with his advertising job? Or Bellamy with his failure to never emerge from what is but essentially a dream?
Finders Keepers is a reminder—as to the insanity that can overtake a person who lives in a fantasy. Of a life that can be wasted. Of a triumph (not failure) of normalcy that can therefore be forfeited.
Extra Section: Finders Keeper’s Engagement with Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author
Finders Keepers opens with Jimmy Gold’s author Rothstein dreaming of a past event in his life, before being rudely awoken, then murdered, by Bellamy. Towards the end of the story, as we get acquainted with Hodges, we discover that he obsessively visits a supposedly braindead ex-criminal, Brady, whose nurses gossip has attained powers of the remote control of inanimate objects. Contrary to all evidence, Hodges refuses to accept that Brady cannot perceive and process his surroundings. As he speaks to Brady, “that sense of being watched is strong… undeniable” (522-3).
Roland Barthes writes in The Death of the Author of the metaphysical death of the Author-God figure. Traditionally, the meaning of the author’s text is derived from their personal identity:
“…literature… has accorded the greatest importance to the author’s ‘person’. the authors still rules in manuals of literary history… anxious to unite… their person and their work; the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions; criticism still consists, most of the time, in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of the man Baudelaire” (Barthes 1-2).
Barthes argues that the meaning of the text is created by the reader; essentially, it is found beyond the author and his identity: “the true locus of writing is reading” (5). He concludes: “the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author” (6).
Finders Keepers’ opening is a violent, literal dramatisation of Barthes’ suggestion. The novel’s opening describes Rothstein’s erotic dream of his first wife, both of them in their youths. Then, as he is awakened, he returns to his current reality—living in his secluded home in New Hampshire. The author Rothstein’s person, history, tastes and passions are front and center. In one fell swoop, King’s opening scene hearkens to all the traditional aspects of meaning-making Barthes details. Then, as Rothstein takes in his surroundings, he realises that Bellamy and his accomplices surround him. Bellamy accuses him of selling out with Jimmy Gold. Rothstein retorts that a youngster like Bellamy knows nothing about literary criticism, beginning an argument which ends with Bellamy stealing the notebooks and shooting Rothstein in the head. The reader both steals the ownership of the author’s work then kills the author. The rest of the novel then centers around readers Bellamy and Saubers’ tussle over the ownership of the manuscripts—”the birth of the reader [ownership, meaning-making, etc.] must be ransomed by the death of the author”. The Author-God figure ceases to exist for the rest of the novel.
Yet, Hodges, the person protecting Saubers, who embodies the salvation and bringing home of the great American Dream, is constantly haunted by Brady, this strange, God-like, inarticulate figure. Brady is a ghost of his formal self, almost unable to speak, or even help himself to the bathroom, yet has an inordinate amount of control and power. Thanatoid as he is, he seems to have a sort of grip on Hodges—as futile as Hodges believes his visits to Brady to be, Hodges almost cannot help himself in returning to him again and again. My argument is that Brady stands in for King himself, acknowledging the validity of Barthes’ argument, yet at the same time illustrating the still ever-present, if not muted, presence of the author in directing a work’s unfolding. In Finders Keepers‘ final scene, Brady/King asserts his control: “When Hodges is gone, Brady raises his head. Beside the picture of his mother, the blue e-reader abruptly comes to life…/ In the bathroom, the water in the sink gushes, then stops…/ The picture falls over./ Clack. (King 525). The novel, beyond being just a commentary of the American Dream, is also an engagement with Barthes’ essay. It opens with the literal murder of an author, yet ends with the still omnipresent personification of the author, who “raises his head” (525) and directly if remotely causes things to happen. The progression of literary criticism may kill the author, but his or her ghost persists still. Yes, the author is dead. But not quite.