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From a Buick 8
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I'm over halfway through the audiotape of Stephen King's latest, "From a Buick 8". So far it seems like a long short story's worth of material drawn out to fill a novel. But I don't have as much of a problem with the format or length as I do with the theme.

The story concerns a Pennsylvania State Highway Patrol Troop who come into possession of a mysterious Buick Roadmaster, though we learn early on, mostly because King tells us over and over and over, it's not an actual car at all. It's some kind of bizarre portal to another world or dimension.

Things get sucked into it (like State Troopers), and things come out of its trunk from time to time (like moth-like one-eyed bat things that smell like peppermint and cabbage). It's stored in a garage, Shed B, where the temperature is always strangely cold. And it also gives off purple-white flashing light shows from time to time.

But basically, the car isn't a car, or even a portal to another world, really. More than anything, it's a metaphor, a heavy-handed one. The car symbolizes "The Mysterious", all the weird shit that people have no explanation for, all the stuff we don't understand.

And here's where I have a real problem with King's thematic message. The central narrator (Sandy Dearborn) is the present-day Sergeant, and he's philosophically contrasted with Curtis Wilcox, the father of the teenage boy the story's being told to (Curtis was killed years earlier in a drunk-driving accident).

See, Sandy has come to accept the Buick as a fundamentally ununderstandable fixture in the lives of Troop D. It's an enigma, and he's come to terms with the fact that it'll always be an enigma. He doesn't want to try to figure out how it works or where it came from or what it means.

Curtis, on the other hand, was enraptured from the beginning. He tried to apply scientific means to try to understand what was going on with the Buick. He put animal specimens in it to see the effect of the light shows. He spent weeks learning dissection to try to understand the animals that popped out of it. But ultimately, he ended up with just as many questions (maybe more) than when he first tried to start figuring it out. And eventually, King alludes to the possibility that his fascination with trying to emperically understand the Buick led to some sort of cosmic bad karma that got him killed.

As I see it, Sandy is the common man, just wanting to live his life, comfortable and self-assured. He cares about the people around him, and they care about him. He doesn't have a thirst for knowledge, for understanding what he doesn't understand, and he's just fine with that. Curtis, on the other hand, is scientific inquiry personified. King describes him repeatedly as "wild-eyed", child-like, enraptured by the thrall of the unknown.

"Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back," is a constant refrain in the book, and it's evident that King is proselytizing here.

There's just some things you ain't gonna understand, he seems to be saying. Just live with it. Trying to understand the world around you is not only a waste of time, it's a dangerous waste of time.

Now, I just had lunch with a couple of coworkers, and the conversation drifted to science and superstition. I was arguing that people prefer to believe in the "mysterious" because it keeps them from having to do the hard work it takes to really understand the reasons for why things happen around them. Psychology is hard, but thinking you know people's wants, desires, and personalities from Astrology is easy (just pick up that little guide in the supermarket checkout lane). Evolution is hard to understand, but any damned fool can intuitively understand the Genesis creation myth in about five minutes.

But even easier is to throw up your hands and not even bother trying to figure out how or why things work the way they do. And that's what King is advocating.

Just shut down your brain. Accept the mysterious for what it is, mysterious, because some things just don't have answers, son.

Now there's an important distinction between thinking you know all the answers and thinking that there are rational, working laws in the universe that we just don't understand yet (because we don't have the faculties). In this same lunchtime conversation I had, both of my co-workers thought scientists were generally too arrogant and presumptive, thinking they alone had the key to the answers of the universe. I countered with the opposing view that your average Baptist is generally much more arrogant and presumptive, thinking they've got it all figured out, from what the bible says. I've met plenty of both, and I find people of science on the whole to be much more humble and reflective about what they think is the truth than religious people.

But the stereotype persists in our culture, of the scientist as elitist snob, poking into the realm of god and trying to dethrone him in lieu of their cold, secular scientific truisms.

King's most recent book plays upon these sentiments, fuels them, and gives them credence.

Sit back and accept the mystery. Don't try to understand the universe, 'cause it's too big and weird and difficult. Just kick back and shut off your cerebrum, ladies and gentlemen.

Because curiosity killed the cat.

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