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King's The Green Mile

October 21, 2011 - Jodelle Greiner
I’ve never been interested in reading Stephen King’s books. I mean, King is the horror-meister and I am not into horror.

Then I saw “The Green Mile” in a used book store. I knew it had been a 1999 movie with Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan and I knew vaguely it was about a prisoner (played by Duncan) and a guard (Hanks) and some kind of supernatural event. In other words, it wasn’t horror.

I decided to take a chance and bought the book.

The main part of the story is about John Coffey — “like the drink, only not spelled the same way” — a giant of a black man who was convicted of the heinous double-murder of two 9-year-old white girls and sentenced to die in the electric chair, a.k.a. Old Sparky, in 1932. Lead guard Paul Edgecombe and the other guards have lots of experience with bad men and they begin to suspect pretty quickly that Coffey isn’t like the other men they’ve seen on the Green Mile. After they witness Coffey’s healing powers, they’re convinced he could not have committed the crime he’s in prison for. Can they execute a man they know is innocent?

I was pleasantly surprised by King’s writing style. Edgecombe narrates the book and, since it takes place in Georgia in 1932, King gives Edgecombe a laid-back, country voice. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting from King, maybe something with a harder edge, but that mild tone is a contrast to the serious subject. It does lend itself to the story very well, giving humanity to these death row prison guards and the work they do tending and escorting prisoners to their demise.

The story of an innocent man being executed for a crime he didn’t commit calls to mind another violent execution. King transposes Coffey’s story with the Biblical account of Jesus, but he does it subtly and within the context of the times and location. Back then and in the South to this day, people were more oriented to religion and Biblical references.

One thing about “The Green Mile” you might not know; it was conceived and written as a series, published in six smaller novels in 1996. It was released as a complete novel the next year. In the Introduction, Forward, and Afterward, King relates how difficult it was to write in the installment style — he couldn’t go back and correct a mistake in earlier chapters because they’d already been printed, so he just had to write himself out of corners — but he did it well. Pay attention to the details early in the story because King ties them into the ending. Simple stuff that you’d think was just throw-away lines or plot filler will come back and have meaning. The story flows smoothly and he ties up his storylines well. I really like how he blended the everyday life of the men with the supernatural that they encounter in the person of John Coffey and how they react to it.

The edition I’m reading is copyrighted in 1997, and has the six novels as they were printed. The problem with this is it’s like each book is a sequel and King has to catch the reader up on what’s been happening. Edgecombe, as the narrator, tends to repeat things, which slows the pace of the story a bit. King’s talent as a writer propels you to want to keep reading, but I think the story would be better served if he’d go in and clean up some of that repetition in future editions. I would really like it if he re-worked the last chapter. The rest of the book is, in its own way, uplifting — making the best come out of a bad situation — but that final chapter disturbs me. It is necessary because it answers one last question, but to me at least, has a different tone than the rest of the book, and feels awkward. I think if King had a chance to re-write it and blend it into the rest of the book, it would flow better — but maybe I’m missing a point he was trying to make. Or maybe I’m getting it and just don’t like it.

Either way, I have to admit I enjoyed King’s writing much more than I thought I would and I’m definitely open to reading more of his work. I don’t think I’m ready for the horror stuff yet, but with all the novels he’s cranked out, I’m sure I can find something.

If you are stuck in a literary rut, don’t be afraid to break out and try reading someone you’ve never read before. You just might find your next favorite author.

 
 

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