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'Game' cheats King fans out of a thrilling novel


GERALD'S GAME. Stephen King. Viking.

332 pages. $23. To Gerald, handcuffing his wife, Jessie, to the bed and pretending to force himself on her was a very arousing game. It was also why, in October, they were at their summer home on Maine's Kashwakamak Lake. Here they could really enjoy themselves.

Unfortunately, Jessie hadn't been enjoying herself at all, had never really even liked playing the game. Well, maybe at first. But that was before the post-game nightmares had started, before the game had become the rule rather than the exception, before she realized how repulsed she was by the whole thing. Unfortunately, all of this occurred to her after she had stripped down to her panties and allowed herself to be handcuffed to the heavy mahogany bed. In other words -- too late.

She had twice demanded to be let loose. The first time, when he had ignored her, she thought he thought she was just playing the game. The second time, she realized he knew she was serious, and simply didn't care. Angry and desperate, Jessie had kicked out at him with both feet, hitting him in the crotch and the chest. It was probably the chest kick that killed him.

Now with Gerald lying dead on the floor beside the bed, Jessie must free herself. But she soon realizes that before she can free her body from the handcuffs that are keeping her from reaching the phone, or grabbing that nearby glass of water, or even getting up and silencing the banging door that Gerald forgot to close, she must free her mind from the thing that's been holding her captive most of her life. It's the thing that created the voices in her head, and the dreams that haunt her nights. It's the thing that happened "the day the sun went out."

Some novelists excel at plotting, others at details. Stephen King excels at breathing a special life into his characters. When he succeeds, as he has so often, that novel will be among his best. When he doesn't, it's often simply best left unread. Lamentably, "Gerald's Game" is among the latter.

Almost everything in "Gerald's Game" is seen through Jessie. Indeed, for a substantial time, she's the only living person in it. But she's not alone when she's alone. She hears voices, and therein lies the beginning of the novel's problems.

The voices are technically a part of what's happening in her mind; Jessie treats them as if they're real, separate characters. Unfortunately, Mr. King doesn't, instead treating them as little more than different parts of her conscience. Thus, he has Jessie believing in something that the reader can't, a situation that precludes development of a much-needed empathy for her.

This lack of empathy also prevents the reader from feeling the horror Jessie feels when she finally delves into what happened that dark day. Again, Mr. King makes Jessie play the role of convincer, and again she fails.

Here Mr. King could have avoided his reliance upon her to convince by making what happened a bit more shocking. No belittlement intended, but when compared to today's headlines, what happened to Jessie seems relatively mundane. Curiously, Mr. King doesn't avoid going for shock elsewhere. But these passages are so gory, and contrast so sharply with the rest of the book, that they seem totally out of place.

Most irritating is Mr. King's use of what is in essence a summary chapter to tie up loose ends. It's a deplorably cheap trick and an insult to the reader, who rightfully expects to be told the entire story, not a semi-abridged version of it.

Mr. Krolczyk is a writer living in Baltimore.

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