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Onyx reviews: We're All In This Together by Owen King

Owen King is the youngest son of authors Stephen and Tabitha King. The dust jacket copy for We’re All in This Together mentions only his childhood in Bangor, Maine, and he acknowledges Mom and Dad without naming them. The author’s heritage is never mentioned explicitly.

With good reason. King’s work deserves to be considered on its own merit without being tainted by a footnote describing him as the son of America’s favorite boogeyman. His style, approach and material are vastly different from anything either of his parents has written.

That being said, We’re All in This Together contains some fine writing. The book consists of the title novella—which takes up more than half the page count—and four short stories. Though plotted, the stories are literary in style. They often raise more questions than they answer, and end in places where the characters’ real lives are just beginning.

The novella is where King’s talents shine strongest. George’s pot-smoking grandfather, Henry, is a former union leader and a rabid Democrat who believes that Al Gore was robbed of the 2000 election. Several times the billboard on his front lawn proclaiming Gore the real president has been defaced with insulting messages written in red paint. Henry believes the culprit is his paperboy, who he also suspects of stealing sections from his newspaper. All out war is pending; Henry is armed with a paintball gun and keeps vigil over his billboard from an upstairs window, marijuana smoke encircling his head. He enlists his teenaged grandson as a willing co-conspirator.

George’s parents split up when he was young. He’s had little contact with his father in the interim, and his mother has gone through a slew of boyfriends, some better than others from his perspective. The man she now plans to marry is his least favorite of them all. He is conducting his own war against his soon-to-be stepfather, whose political leanings are suspect; he may have voted for Bush.

George’s mother is caught in the middle. At times mother and son communicate only by passing notes. “Why didn’t you marry Dale?” he writes one evening when they are waging mischief against a group of protestors who routinely vandalize the family planning clinic where she works, making it clear that her fiancé doesn’t measure up to some of her previous boyfriends.

What George has to learn through his teenage angst is the importance of a family—whatever that term represents—remaining strong, cohesive and allied against the world. The story’s title is the mantra of the determined and successful family.

In “Frozen Animals,” an itinerant, alcoholic dentist is summoned to a remote hunting cabin to attend to the dental needs of a trapper’s wife. The period story follows his progress through the woods during a blizzard, roped to two trappers. After they reach the cabin, he performs the requisite surgery and is paid for his services in a thoroughly unexpected manner, which his besotted mind barely remembers.

The star pitcher for the Coney Island Wonders is off his game in “Wonders.” His girlfriend is pregnant and they venture to a shady part of town to take care of this bit of unwanted business. A troop of freaks who provide entertainment during the seventh inning stretch at Wonders games offers more serious services later on. The pitcher’s fate is intertwined with that of a vociferous heckler who is especially fond of ridiculing the team’s sole African American player.

In “Snake,” a father drops his son Frank off at the mall on a Sunday afternoon on a weekend when he has him for visitation. The mall is mostly empty, except for a kiosk huckster selling photographs taken with his pet boa constrictor. Bored, Frank strikes up a conversation with the man and hears the fantastic tale of how he came to own such a creature. Though Frank later doubts the story’s veracity, he is forced to admit that it is a good tale all the same. “Snake” ends on an unexpected note, leaving the reader to consider the import of what Frank has learned.

The closing story, “My Second Wife,” features a morose man named Stanley. He agrees to drive to Florida with his brother, who wants to purchase a classic Jaguar from the wife of a killer facing imminent execution. The killer used the car to run down several squeegee men, and it is highly sought after by collectors of serial killer memorabilia. Stanley and his brother must camp out until after the execution to close the deal.

Stanley and his estranged wife used to play a game in which he asked her how she would escape from dangerous, albeit hypothetical situations. Now that his wife has left him for the baker, Stanley realizes that he never included himself in those scenarios, and she never relied on him to save her in her responses.

Depressed and convinced that he will die alone, his brother’s expedition seems like a fitting distraction from his malaise. It’s part road trip and part voyage of rediscovery. “How could I save myself from the kind of love that could rip you to pieces, the kind of love that in the end still loved you enough to tell you the last hard truth, to tell you that things had changed?”

We’re All in This Together is a strong debut collection from a young writer with an unquestionably powerful literary pedigree.

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