Gunslinger is the first novel in Stephen King’s epic “Dark Tower” series and introduces the main character of the tale, known simply as “the gunslinger”.
As a review should open with a synopsis of the plot of the book, I must use this time to alert you to the strange lack of plot of this book. It is simply a book in which one man follows another, throughout which flashbacks and contemplations are our only distraction from the endless and parched desert of the gunslinger’s world. I disagree. I felt the plot WAS the chase while everything else that was included was King's attempt to share Roland's personality and characteristics with the reader. Without the flashbacks and the stops in the story it would have been an empty tale of nothing but the chase.
According to King’s afterword the book had been on his writer’s slate for thirty years before he finally completed the first book; he would continually dip into the piece throughout his writing career, setting it aside only to dedicate himself solely to what is arguably known as his greatest work, The Stand. The time and devotion that King has poured into these books comes across in their narratives, as the characters have clearly been lovingly crafted in King’s head for years until he knows them as well as he knows himself. This is where the first problem of the book kicks off however; evidently King has known these characters a very long time, the readers however are only on their first encounter with them and so the cold and logical mind of the lead character comes across simply as a lack of characterization as his past, his motivations, even his name, are unknown to us.
On the other hand, the distant nature of the character fits well with the varying tempo of the narrative, in the gunslinger we find the single constant that is otherwise lost on the genre and imagery of the novel. The book is a strange mix of genres that by rights really shouldn't work. It begins with a lone ranger style character crossing a seemingly endless desert in pursuit of a mysterious “Man in Black”. It is followed with a traditional old west style account of the gunslingers time in Tull, a small tumble-weed town fit with saloon and shoot out. It is here where we see the first glimpses of religious mysticism and intrigue which follow into the intellectual scientific mystery of the Dark Tower, time and the universe itself.
Before that however an encounter with a boy who seems to have been pulled through time and abandoned in a house haunted by demonic voices and rotting skeletons serves to bring a thread of emotion, along with dark horror overtones, into the novel. Through the introduction of Jake, the gunslinger’s past begins to unravel; opening up another genre trend in his castle bound, sword-and-sorcery-esque childhood as an apprentice gunslinger in a land of royal order and untrustworthy enchanters.
Eventually a brief assault from a group of glowing, mountain dwelling mutants takes the story down the science fiction trail, where it had already made one or two hesitant steps previously, with the depiction of a world that has moved on, where technology, science, even electricity are prehistoric myths of a mankind with seemingly godlike powers, now long forgotten.
In so many ways this mish-mash of genres ought to mar the narrative and make the piece almost unreadable, yet this is hardly the case, in fact they work quite well together. It is hardly a seamless transition and on occasion the references stick out like a sore thumb, but you get the impression that they’re supposed to do just that. I found the varying genres an intelligent mixture and only King could get away with such a thing...and still pull it off so well.
What does make the book hard going is the lead characters’ lack of emotion; for sometime before he meets Jake the gunslinger is quite simply obsessed with capturing the man in black; his reasons and drive are completely unknown to us and so for the first third of the book you have to struggle through with a fairly one sided, unlikeable character. I didn't experience a lack of emotions from the lead character. I understood it as him keen on his purpose but accepting of the rocks that get thrown in the path he is on. He cared for some of the people, in fact even mentioned he would later hear them in his dreams and such. He even screamed he loved Jake. There were numerous occasions where the writer showed emotion through his protagonist.
The boy Jake brings emotion to the narrative however, his story is intriguing and the references he makes to subways and movies serve to allow us readers to find something tangible and recognizable to grasp in this melting pot of genre stereotypes. Jake does bring something special to the tale; that I'll agree on.
Jake is by far the book’s strongest point, he is a relate-able and likable character; no more than a scared, lost child. Yet his role in the novel is short lived and despite the upset and bitter feeling his departure leaves you with it is an inevitable plot turn that King alerts you to early on; and in some strange way, it fits. Nothing could be more appropriate for the gunslinger’s story than the love that he begins to feel for Jake, and nothing could be more appropriate for the mythical/religious analogy of the novel than the fate that awaits Jake because of this love. He is seen as more than a lost, scared child. Roland is in fact proud of the child because he is so much more than a scared, lost child. The child to me seemed to be a strong compilation of Roland's friends from his youth. A bittersweet sentiment in my opinion since all his friends are dead and gone and to now see so much of them all in this one child.
The mystery of the book can also be overshadowing at times, rather than simply clouding perception the reader’s understanding is completely blocked for certain aspects of the narrative; which, at the closing point of The Gunslinger, can be overlooked, provided that they are explained later on in the series, otherwise this will be a serious flaw in this single book, let alone the series as a whole. One must make the decision to deal with Stephen King's writing quirks and finish the entire series to find complete and utter sense of contentment and satisfaction.
Finally, some readers who may not have read any King before may find his writing style hard to get along with, he is indulgent and descriptive and at times this makes sentences long winded and ruins their significance. King is not one to say something in four words when he can do it forty. He also loves to demonstrate his vocabulary and eloquence by constructing convoluted sentences with unnecessarily intellectual words. This is particularly noticeable in the gunslingers final encounter with the man in black, in which they question the size of the universe and the meaning of life. It is overly complex and draws attention away from the drama of the moment, which would have been far better served with awe and simplicity than King’s over zealous dedication to adjectives. And in the same way King can spin a 40 word description he can also write three solitary words and define the expansion of an entire scene. He is brilliant with his words...whether brief or not.
As this “aren’t we insignificant” dirge is the ending of the first Dark Tower book, it leaves you on a considerable downer. A terrible sacrifice, both to the character and to the quality of the book, is made and then the man in black, whom we have been so ardently searching for, leaves us more confused than we were to begin with. Maybe this was completely intentional on King’s part, as this ending just makes you desperate to read the next book in the series. I felt the conversation between the Gunslinger and the man in black was at times genius and at times bland and boring. Fortunately the book did not end with the conversation but instead went on to the other side. King most definitely did this because there was a much bigger story to tell. I wonder however, if he could rewrite the ending of this book...would he? Has he considered that at all? This is something I might ask King myself.
In a strange way I would not say this was an enjoyable read, but an intriguing and exciting one that has left me both frustrated and enthralled. The promise of the books that follow make the first book worth the reading as, when it boils down to it, the first book did nothing more than introduce the myths and imagery of the series, which themselves are a truly refreshing take on fantasy fiction. I first picked this book up when I thirteen. The book series was far from complete and had only the first three novels at that time...and yet it made such a dramatic impression upon me I hung on and prayed everyday that Stephen King would live to write the end of the series. I was not dissatisfied in the least. SO having picked up this book again, after all this time, I was pleasantly taken aback by the many things I had long since forgotten of the story. It was very much enjoyable, as much as it was intriguing and exciting.