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Onyx reviews: Duma Key by Stephen King

While many people believe that Stephen King has been trying to scare his readers for the past thirty years, for much of his career King has actually been exploring the nature of creativity. Many of his books feature writers struggling with creativity-related issues, from writer's block (The Shining, Bag of Bones) to crazed fans (Misery) to concerns over literary estates (Lisey's Story) to problems with contentious pseudonyms (The Dark Half). King also examined the relationship between creator and creation in The Dark Tower series and expounded on the nature of the craft in his non-fiction book On Writing.

Edgar Freemantle (no relation to Mother Abigail from The Stand), the protagonist of Duma Key—a book King describes as The Maltese Falcon meets The Shining—isn't a writer. He's an artist, and not even that at the outset of the book. He turns to drawing and painting on the recommendation of Kamen, his therapist, while he's recovering from injuries suffered when a crane collided with his truck at a construction site. Edgar lost his right arm and suffered a crushed hip and broken leg in the accident, but the worst damage is to his brain, a contracoup injury that leaves him groping for words after he emerges from a coma.

Rage is another major outcome of his accident. When he can't remember a word or a name, his mind turns crimson. The doll Kamen gives him as a proxy for his anger doesn't stop Edgar from lashing out at his wife of twenty-five years, Pam. He stabs her with a plastic knife on one occasion he recalls and almost strangles her on another that he doesn't. Ultimately, Pam asks for a divorce. His younger—and favorite—daughter, Ilse, a student at Brown University, is devastated.

Recognizing suicidal ideations in Edgar's behavior, Kamen prescribes a change of venue and a hobby. Kamen knows Edgar's pain will pass eventually. Distressed by how transparent his self-destructive thoughts are, Edgar follows his therapist's advice. The fortune amassed through his building contract business could be tied up indefinitely if he kills himself.

He picks a rental home that juts out over the Gulf of Mexico on Florida's Duma Key and leaves the Minnesota winter behind. Or perhaps "Big Pink" (as he dubs the house) chose him. From his upstairs window, all he can see is water, so he begins painting a series of Florida sunsets. Recognizing them as clichéd, he dangles inanimate objects over the horizon in a style reminiscent of Dali, a one-time resident of Big Pink. Edgar is "trying to re-invent the ordinary" to "make it new by turning it into a dream."

Elizabeth Eastlake, the island's only permanent resident, is a patron of the arts who owns the northern half of Duma Key. The southern half is hostile, choked with non-indigenous plant life. When Edgar tries to take Ilse on a sightseeing expedition down the overgrown road past the Eastlake estate during her visit to the key, his daughter becomes violently ill.

Elizabeth's mother died in childbirth, leaving her father to raise five daughters, two of which disappeared in the 1920s and were presumed drowned. Her past is revealed a bit at a time through a dozen short sections titled How to Draw a Picture I-XII. King appears to be implying that opening oneself up to raw creative talent can leave one vulnerable. At risk.

Elizabeth is battling Alzheimer's. Her live-in caretaker, Jerome Wireman, becomes Edgar's new best friend—after Edgar finally manages to extend one of his "great walks" all the way down the beach to their house. Wireman is one of the great Stephen King characters, a seriously cool dude who has seen a lot and knows how to distill life down to a series of bon mots. He recognizes Edgar's talent and encourages his new friend to follow through when a local gallery owner expresses interest in his work. He has the patience of Job when dealing with his Elizabeth's deteriorating condition and is also the general manager in charge of the other rental properties on Duma.

Both Elizabeth and Wireman suffered head injuries and Edgar, with his recent trauma, makes three. Something on or around the island amplifies the unusual talents that appear to be caused by their injuries.  

Drawing and painting evolve from a hobby to a compulsion as Edgar's skill develops. His missing arm itches when inspiration strikes. He churns out painting after painting, often in a fugue state, and he has moments when it seems like his right arm has restored to him. The itch in his phantom arm represents his overwhelming need to create but also, perhaps, indicates that his creativity doesn't strictly come from within. When he finishes a work, the itch goes away and he is ravenously hungry. 

Some of his paintings reveal things he has no way of knowing: what his daughter's new boyfriend looks like and the location of his ex-wife's tattoo. People find his paintings disturbing, perhaps even a little frightening. He learns that he can sometimes use his work to bend reality to his will. When a man is arrested for kidnapping and murdering a young girl, Edgar finds a unique way to punish the man and spare the girl's family the anguish of a prolonged trial. (The case was inspired by a kidnap-murder that occurred while King was wintering in Florida. When caught, the real-life culprit said, "I got high and did a terrible thing." King was so angry that he decided to put him in the book and "do a bad thing to him.")

Understanding the power of his work better than anyone else, Elizabeth warns Edgar to move his paintings off the island and to keep Ilse from coming back to visit. Daughters don't do well on Duma, she tells him in one of her semi-lucid moments.

The local art critic identifies Edgar as an American primitive. He lacks the training and the vocabulary to explain what he's doing. He doesn't know how to preserve his works, or even that he needs to worry about preservation. She says he's "unbottling," making up for lost time after discovering late in life a talent that was probably within him all along.

He's astonishingly prolific. "There are artists who labor for months over a single painting of half the quality your work shows," the critic tells him. "But you…you're producing these things like a man working on an assembly line. Like a magazine illustrator or…a comic-book illustrator."

Edgar responds, "I grew up believing folks were supposed to work hard at what they do—I think that's all it is." People familiar with the criticism of prolific, popular authors by the literary establishment might hear King's voice countering the assumption that quantity negates the possibility of quality.

In another moment of lucidity, Elizabeth tells Edgar, "The truth has to come out, that's the basis of art." To discover the source of his newfound talent and the growing power on Duma Key, Edgar, Wireman and Jack Cantori, Edgar's man Friday, must excavate the past and unravel the mystery behind the destruction of Elizabeth's family. Elizabeth's failing memory is of little use, but relics in the house lead the trio to the original Eastwood estate on the island's abandoned south end.

Finally, they learn about Perse, who fits in well with the pantheon of ageless evil characters from King's other work, like Tak and It and "the other," demons that seem to exist for no other reason than to destroy humanity. Though it is up to ordinary men like Edgar and Wireman to defeat this evil, they aren't alone. Mike Noonan had the ghost of his dead wife assisting him in Bag of Bones and the Losers in It were counseled by the turtle. Roland Deschain had the power of ka on his side while striving for the Dark Tower. King's philosophy seems to be this: "Maybe there is something on the bright side of the equation, looking out for us a little."

Duma Key is a complex book, but its heart—as with all of King's best novels—belongs to its characters. The first person narrative puts readers solidly inside Edgar Freemantle's head, even as he tries to explain the unexplainable, the impossibility of comparing the act of creativity to something tangible, for example: "You can't tell anyone what it's like. You can only talk around it until everyone's exhausted and it's time to go to sleep."

"Art is memory…The clearer the memory, the better the art. The purer." Edgar's two most important relationships—that with his younger daughter and his new friendship with Wireman—are as real as fiction can possibly reproduce. Even the tense détente Edgar finds with his ex-wife bears the patina of truth. The memories these characters experience are real, imagined, revised and occasionally just slightly out of their grasp.

"Our memories have voices, too," Edgar says. "Ask anyone who has ever lost a limb or a child or a long-cherished dream. Ask anyone who blames himself for a bad decision, usually made in a raw instant (an instant that is most commonly red). Our memories have voices, too. Often sad ones that clamor like raised arms in the dark."

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