Current reviews
  Reviews by title
  Reviews by author

  Contact Onyx

  Discussion forum


Onyx reviews: Blaze by Richard Bachman

Every now and then, Richard Bachman comes back from the dead.

The author's demise was first reported over twenty years ago. The cause: cancer of the pseudonym. Prior to the publication of Thinner, Bachman's output consisted of four paperback original novels, all written in the 1960s and 70s, none of which turned the author into a household name.

His first hardcover appearance, however, blew the cover off the author's identity—he was none other than Stephen King, who immediately and regretfully retired the pseudonym.

A decade later, King "discovered" a Bachman manuscript called The Regulators, a twin to the King book Desperation. Now, another Bachman book has materialized—probably the last one.

Blaze is infamous in the King community. He first mentioned it in the foreword to Different Seasons, describing it as a tribute to Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. It was one of two manuscripts he offered to his agent as a possible follow up to Carrie. The other book was 'Salem's Lot and the rest, as they say, is history.

Blaze was consigned to a cardboard box in the Special Collections section of the University of Maine, along with King's other archival material. A few King scholars over the years have had access to it (including Stephen Spignesi who, in The Lost Works of Stephen King, described the plot in detail and suggested that the book felt like a Bachman novel).

King's recollection of the novel was less than flattering. He believed it was overly melodramatic—so tragic that readers would weep "copious tears of laughter," to quote Oscar Wilde—until he recently retrieved the manuscript and reread it. Not as bad as he feared, he admitted. With a little renovation, he believed it might be published without causing him too much embarrassment. He described the revision process as being akin to "desaturation" in photo editing. He said he hoped to take all the superfluous color out of the original language. This isn't the first time he's edited his younger self—a few years ago he completely renovated The Gunslinger to remove the pompous and trying-too-hard language of a twenty-one-year-old author.

Clayton (Blaze) Blaisdell, Jr. is a giant of a man, but not a mental giant. He didn't start out life slow, though. A catastrophic injury at the hands of his father left him with a debilitating brain injury and a dent in his prodigious forehead. He became a ward of the state and later a wanderer through life, at the mercy of anyone smarter and less scrupulous.

The biggest influence on Clayton's life is George Rockley, a seasoned criminal and con man who happens to be dead when the novel begins, killed three months earlier during a craps game that went south. That doesn't prevent him from talking to Blaze—though whether Blaze is really hearing the voice of his former partner is an open question. Mostly it seems like Blaze is recreating conversations and scenes from the past, but there are times when he appears to be getting new information and making new connections.

Without George around, Blaze is prone to making mistakes. He barely escapes arrest when he tries to repeat an old con on a widow who catches on to the scam. He robs a convenience store but forgets to wear a mask. He returns the next night, proudly announcing to the beleaguered cashier that he remembered his mask this time.

His big plan, though, is to carry out a scheme developed while George was still alive: A kidnapping. Their brilliant notion—inspired by the famous Lindburgh kidnapping—is to take an infant who can't possibly identify his captors, so they won't have to kill him if he accidentally overhears or sees something incriminating.

The target is the child of a wealthy family and the ransom is a million dollars. Enough to keep Blaze away from robbing convenience stores for a good many years.

Inevitably, the scheme goes bad one step at a time. Blaze simply doesn't have what it takes to pull off something so sophisticated without making stupid mistakes. The cops know who he is shortly after the kidnapping, but in case they hadn't figured it out, he calls them collect and reveals his name.

He also underestimates his own strength, and someone ends up dead. Still, he has the baby, and continues to try to collect the ransom, return the victim and get away clean. Once he realizes some of his worst errors are catching up with him, he retreats to the most familiar place he has ever known.

Interspersed with the contemporary story are chapters that flashback to Blaze's childhood. The violence inflicted upon him—until his growth spurt leaves him towering over his peers and adults alike. His experiences in foster homes and foster care. Friendships and rivalries. These episodes verge on melodramatic, especially the idyllic trip he and his friend Johnny make to Boston after they find a wallet full of cash in the movie theater. The fact that Johnny is terminally ill contributes to the emotional load in these chapters but, even so, readers will feel Blaze's loss when the one person who might have guided him away from a life of crime meets with a tragic end. The timing is orchestrated to maximize the impact, but it's a powerful chain of events all the same.

Blaze is not as sophisticated as King's more recent works, but it is an early harbinger of his skills. The fundamental success of the book relies on characterization, which has always been King's forte. His ability to make readers root for a con man, robber, thief, kidnapper and killer makes Blaze stand out. Blaze is a predecessor to The Stand's Tom Cullen, another simple man who experienced flashes of brilliance. If Tom had fallen under the wrong influences, he might have ended up in similar circumstances.

Blaze may not be remembered in the same breath with other King classics, but he's correct in thinking that it's a work he shouldn't be embarrassed about. It provides a valuable glimpse at the genesis of the world's best-selling author.

Note: all of King's profits from the book will be donated to The Haven Foundation, an organization King helped establish to support performing artists who suffer a financial crisis, often because of a serious medical problem.

Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2007. All rights reserved.