Thursday, February 16, 2012

Book Review: The Green Mile

In the introduction Stephen King writes that when his publisher hit him up with the idea of writing a serial novel, he leaped at the chance. I can see the advantages of a serial novel: you don't get to go back and endlessly tinker around with what you've already written—it's published already. So you either have to stick by what you've written and just plug ahead or try to do a messy retcon.[1] The attractiveness for the publisher is even more obvious, though: why sell one paperback for $8.99 when you can chop it into six chapbooks and sell each for $2.99? That nearly doubles your return! King hasn't tried it again with any of his subsequent novels, so we can only hope that there was a backlash against this obviously money-grubbing scheme. Each chapbook has it's own title. I'll address them each separately:

The Two Dead Girls:

Here King introduces us to the Green Mile, the death row of Cold Mountain Penitentiary in Alabama. He does a good job of setting up most of the later events. One exception: there are two passing allusions to the status of the narrator at the time of writing (he's no longer at the penitentiary). But they are embedded willy-nilly in the middle of unrelated paragraphs. If I didn't already know what was happening from watching the movie (edited), I'd have no idea what those asides meant. Whether I'd have stored them as potentially interesting anomalies or discarded them as sloppy writing, I can't say.

King has the ability to use language in clever ways. Unfortunately for the majority of the instances in this (and in later passages), he is seeking new ways to be crude or incorporate profanity. In fact, he uses profanity as though he thinks there isn't enough of it in the world and he's trying to convince us to make it more quotidian.

The Mouse on the Mile

Here he flat out tells you that the narrator is in an old folks' home, so that's out of the way. A lot of this chapter is about an unusual new arrival to the prison: a mouse with some special abilities. Unfortunately, the mouse doesn't seem to serve any real purpose except to fill up pages. His parlor tricks are just that—a parlor trick. In the context of a novel, this digression about the mouse might be okay—especially if it were spread out more. But as 3/4ths of a chapbook it's a complete distraction from the actual story line. It serves no purpose whatsoever.

King's prose is mostly pedestrian, but he seems to have dug out his thesaurus so that he could use every possible word for the male genitalia. His motive for doing this is that the narrator has a particularly nasty urinary tract infection. But despite his creativity at describing the afflicted organ, King can only come up with one simile for the pain caused by the affliction: coal oil set aflame. He uses that simile at least a dozen times in this section, and probably more.

He derides one of his characters: "Brad is a dimwit who thinks nothing is funny unless it's mean (used in the sense "unkind", "malicious")." Reworded a little, you see it for the dischism [2] it is: "Stephen King is a dimwit who thinks nothing is funny unless it is mean (in this case used in the sense "base", "crude")."

Coffey's Hands

Enter the magical realism. King is known for writing horror, but this collection of chapbooks is best described as magical realism. Magical realism is fiction set in the real world but where magical or supernatural things take place and are also accepted as real.

So far I'm just trudging along. There's no hook that makes me want to keep reading; nothing to compel me to read the next chapter even though it's already 1 am. The best King can do is to dangle the "you won't believe what happens next!" carrot. Or sometimes he resorts to the maddening technique of having a character tell you they've found, learned, or realized something important, but he (King) refuses to tell you what it was for another several chapters. That doesn't create dramatic tension—that just annoys/angers the reader.

The Bad Death of Eduard Delacroix

Here King makes it clear that he disapproves of capital punishment. And he feels that people who are mean (e.g. Percy Whetmore, Brad Dolan) are worse than people who commit crimes (like rape and murder), but aren't mean. He later equates these mean people with Republicans by having one of the modern-day characters sport a bumper sticker that says, "I Have Seen God and His Name Is Newt Gingrich". Hopefully King doesn't think that being nasty like that (i.e. "mean") will win acolytes to his cause.

Night Journey

Here King starts drawing parallels between John Coffey and Jesus Christ (he suffers for others, he heals others' pain, he received an unfair trial, he is sentenced to die, (later) he punishes the wicked). He starts talking about Paul Edgecomb's "road to Damascus". He comes up with a bizarre explanation about why there is suffering in the world—not Satan (though Satan's real, too), but "a spirit of chaos".

Coffey on the Mile

Despite the allusions to Jesus Christ, King shows his disdain for organized religion by having Coffey refuse a preacher when it's time for him to "walk the mile". Earlier in the book he mockingly refers to Christianity (at least as practiced in Georgia) as "the Church of Praise the Lord Jesus Almighty".

As King ties up the 'novel', there were several things that were hard to believe. Paul Edgecomb is a prison guard in the South in the 1930s. There's no way he and his buddies would all be educated and enlightened enough to care about a black man they way they did. In another scene, with Paul and his friend, Elaine, intimidate one of the nursing home orderlies who is picking on them. I have trouble believing that people that old could pull that off.[3]

My verdict: King seems to view the existence of capital punishment as one of the yet-to-be-eradicated blemishes of human nature. The electric chair, along with two human monsters, are the horrors of this novel. Yet he unintentionally deals with them by capital punishment (one is murdered and the other's mind is obliterated, which is essentially the same). And it is the compassionate and benevolent character, who is astonishingly capable of reducing human suffering, that destroys these two monsters. This is a glaring contradiction to the message King is trying to convey. And that's just sloppy writing.[4]

The only thing that really made this different from the movie was the scene where Paul and his wife are in a car accident and Paul thinks that he sees John Coffey, but Coffey refuses to help. So, given the chance, I recommend you watch the edited version of The Green Mile and stay safely away from the stale source material.


[1] In actuality only one or two of the chapbooks had published by the time King finished the last one, so these advantages were obviated.

[2] See the Turkey City Primer.

[3] King does capture the spirit of the elderly by having Paul 'collect' the obituaries of all of his old acquaintances (I didn't really need to hear about it, though). King himself was only 49 at the time of writing, which is a little early for him to start. But his writing is definitely senescing.

[4] Other writing errors: he repeatedly uses the word "pop" when in Georgia the word most commonly used is "coke" (see for soft drinks#United States). He incorrectly uses the term pederasty to mean assault on young girls.

Image attributions:

Old Sparky is by the NYS Department of Correctional Services, is in the public domain, and is available at


  1. Dear Matt,

    I do not think you are rightat all. While I agree that the movie itself has a more lasting effect on people, I think you are extremely harsh on this novel - yes, it is a novel because it was published in a novel form, too. Quite frankly, you sound a bit hurt in your writing as if Stephen King himself walked up to you the other day and kicked you in the groin. If such a trauma casted a shadow over your judgement, then I hope that you have already recovered after writing this thingie. I do not think King wanted to say capital punishment is whack. I'd rather say he intended to show bad stuff happens to bad people and good people too. As for the mouse, I think he is a remainder of innocence at the death row (we can even compare Del to him) and thus he serves a good purpose. And despite saying that nothing hooks you, you still read this book at 1 am. What's a bigger contradiction - this or the supposed one of King's?

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    First, I think you can make the case that the mouse is a remainder (did you mean reminder?) of innocence on death row in the movie because all these plot lines are more creatively interwoven by the scriptwriter. But in King's hands the mouse was just filler material.

    Second, my review is totally objective. I've never met Mr. King nor do I bear him any particular ill will (at least, no more than I do any other bad author). You, on the other hand, do appear to be coming from somewhere subjective.

    Third, I didn't say that I read this book at 1 am. I used the example of reading into the wee hours of the morning to suggest how I behave when a book has hooked me―which this book didn't. (I actually read the omnibus form you alluded to; I chose to review each chapbook separately because that's how King chose to publish them.) So I was actually emphasizing that I didn't read this book until 1 am precisely because it was so unengaging. So, since this isn't a contradiction, King's is the only one left and it easily wins the "bigger contradiction" prize.

    Fourth, while I am not able to find any direct quotes by King on the matter of capital punishment (except the label "state-sanctioned murder" he gives it in this novel), his politics are clearly far-left. So it would be quite out of character for him to portray it in a fashion as nuanced and thoughtful as you suggest―which he didn't.

  3. I am currently in the middle of reading The Green Mile in novel form, not the chapbooks as it was originally released. King did that with this book not only to try it out, but also to meet the deadlines he so hated. Personally I am a Stephen King fan. I read a lot of different books, and while quite a good number start off slow and take a while to get into, this book I've found to be one that you'll get in to by the second chapter, if you'll get in to it at all. Yes the movie may capture attention and intrigue sooner, but in my opinion, by not reading the book one loses certain plot twists and various nuances and character thoughts and feelings. The movie I've found that most closely resembles the book is The Hunger Games. All in all though, I'm quite pleased with The Green Mile and would recommend it to anyone who is or may be a potential Stephen King fan.

  4. I would say that the Hunger Games movies are better than the books because the books were pretty awful but at least the movies can keep your eyes entertained while you eat popcorn.