Simon and Schuster, 2007, 285 pages
A fellow named Richard Bachman wrote Blaze in 1973 on an Olivetti typewriter, then turned the machine over to Stephen King, who used it to write Carrie. Bachman died in 1985 (from "cancer of the pseudonym"), but in late 2006, King found the original typescript of Blaze among his papers at the University of Maine's Fogler Library ("How did this get here?!") and decided that, with a little revision, it ought to be published.
Blaze is the story of Clayton Blaisdell, Jr., and of the crimes committed against him and the crimes he commits, including his last, the kidnapping of a baby heir worth millions. Blaze has been a slow thinker since childhood, when his father threw him down the stairs and then threw him down again. After escaping an abusive institution for boys when he was a teenager, Blaze hooks up with George, a seasoned criminal who thinks he has all the answers. But then George is killed, and Blaze, though haunted by his partner, is on his own.
He becomes one of the most sympathetic criminals in all of literature. This is a crime story of surprising strength and sadness, with a suspenseful current sustained by the classic workings of fate and character, as taut and riveting as Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.
Although I've enjoyed a lot of Stephen King's later books, I have always loved his earlier works a little bit more intensely, even though they are often more flawed. (Considering there was a period of time when King was writing entire novels while bombed out of his skull, it's amazing what he was able to produce.)
Richard Bachman is a pseudonym King used in the 70s and 80s to write a number of books, including some of his grittier, more violent classics like The Long Walk, The Running Man, and the now out-of-print Rage.
You know how they say some authors could publish their grocery lists and people would buy it? This may not be literally true, but King can dig 30-year-old manuscripts out of his trunk and publish them, and I will read them. Blaze is a trunk novel he wrote before Carrie. He polished it up and presumably fixed some of the more dated references (though as he notes in the foreword, the absence of cell phones and DNA evidence, which would seriously affect his plot, still dates the story to some prior decade). The result is classic King, or maybe classic King lite — not his best, and it's not even close to being my favorite of his Bachman books, but it's got that feel of early King novels I loved so much when I first became a fan.
The protagonist, Clayton Blaisdell, Jr., aka "Blaze," is a lunk. He's a giant of a man, soft-hearted and simple-minded. Blaze is his life story, which is pretty much one of being screwed over his entire life. As a child, his drunken father throws him down the stairs three times; he goes into a coma and wakes up with brain damage that will leave him permanently "slow." He's not quite retarded, but even learning basic arithmetic and reading skills is a struggle for him. He spends his childhood in an orphanage with the usual corrupt and abusive headmaster, whom the boys all refer to as "The Law." The Law, like all the other secondary characters, illustrates one of King's greatest strengths (and in his bigger novels, his weakness): his ability to write detailed portraits of an entire cast of minor characters, all of them interesting no matter how briefly relevant they are to the main plot.
The book is a combination of depressing bildungsroman and crime caper; chapters alternate between Blaze's hard-knocks childhood and the present, in which he has gotten it into his thick head to kidnap a millionaire's baby and hold it for ransom, the ransom to be paid by dropping the money out of a plane. Obviously Blaze did not come up with this idea; it was the brainchild of his partner, George, a cunning con man who's been doing the thinking for Blaze for years. Unfortunately, George is dead, which doesn't stop him from telling Blaze what to do.
The caper is not that interesting; it's terribly improbable and a foregone conclusion that it's not going to turn out well. What King does with this narrative, though, is paint a picture of a monster who robs, kidnaps, and kills, someone whose story, if reported on the news, would make most people believe he's irredeemable, the proverbial bad seed who needs to be locked up forever. But with the background story King gives us, we know what no one else ever will — Blaze isn't evil, he never was. His life is a tragedy; he does make some bad decisions, but no one in his situation, especially with his cognitive limitations, would be likely to do better.
King's storytelling is richest when he's going into the details of childhood and adolescence, especially the more unpleasant parts that most people are either lucky enough not to experience or gloss over in their memories. By the end of the book, you'll be wishing things would go right for Blaze just once, even though he's engaged in a fantastically stupid felony that goes from bad to worse. With Stephen King, it's always about 50/50 whether you'll get a happy ending. But Richard Bachman, that guy is mean.
Verdict: Blaze is a surprisingly touching story about a giant, murderous thug. If you are a fan of Stephen King for his storytelling but not so much for his blood 'n guts, and especially if you liked his Bachman books, then while this is not likely to be anyone's favorite King novel, it's certainly something that was worth digging out of his trunk.
Also by Stephen King: My reviews of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and Lisey's Story.
My complete list of book reviews.