James Patterson, Daniel Silva, Patricia Cornwell, David Baldacci, Jeffrey Deaver, and Dan Brown are all New York Times bestselling writers. At any time you’re almost guaranteed to see one of them on the current NYT bestselling list. As I glance down the current list I see descriptions that are similar: federal agents, hit men, police detectives, and medical examiners. Almost all are part of a series based on a character. Almost all are about people who are settled in important jobs from which little tension is garnered about their future career prospects.
I say this not to criticize any of these writers, but there’s a clear pattern here. As the middle and working classes in America are further marginalized, as they struggle to make ends meet, much of our literature is still concerned with people who have comfortable, or at least stable, economic lives. So, then, where is the representation of most of America and what most of its citizens are going through? In an answer that might seem at first odd, the working and middle class troubles can usually be found in the works of one of the bestselling authors of all time: Stephen King.
Considering King’s net worth is upwards of $400 million it might be surprising to hear King is a writer who has captured the feel of middle and working class life time and again. A look at his personal history tells us this might not be as surprising as first thought. King grew up in a single parent household after his father left, leaving King’s mother to raise Stephen and his adopted brother, David. The family moved around and was consistently in poor financial straits. Until King sold the rights to Carrie in paperback, his life would remain this way. In his half autobiography, half writing manual, On Writing, King describes his post college years as thus: “From a financial point of view, two kids were probably two too many for college grads working in a laundry and the second shift at Dunkin’ Donuts.” A few pages later he adds, “We took care of ourselves and the kids and each other as best we could. Tabby [King’s wife] wore her pink uniform out to Dunkin’ Donuts and called the cops when the drunks came in for coffee got obstreperous. I washed motel sheets and kept writing one-reel horror movies.”
King has long been a lover of stories set in small towns: ‘Salem’s Lot, Under the Dome, It, and many more. Small town stories risk becoming clichéd, but King brings a sense of realism to them, something which nicely clashes with the horror that inevitably enters the town. Take a read of his description of ‘salem’s Lot: “There were a few new houses he didn’t remember, there was a tavern called Dell’s just over the town line, and a pair of fresh gravel quarries… But the old tin sign pointing the way to the town dump was still there, and the road itself was still unpaved, full of chuckholes and washboards, and he could see Schoolyard Hill through the slash in the trees where the Central Maine Power pylons ran on a northwest to southeast line.”
The passage occurs when Ben Mears returns to ‘salem’s Lot to write a book about the hellish house he grew up in, a house that has a link to the Great Depression (no spoilers here- read it and scream), a nice reminder of the less than comfortable conditions the townspeople live in.
King’s description adds a hint of discomfort to the working class town. He describes a “slash” in the trees and the broken roads don’t just lead to the town- they lead to the town dump. Perhaps it’s not surprising that writer Ben Mears grew up in such a town and is now returning to write a book that chronicles the terror of his old house, because in a way King is doing the same thing.
If we flash thirty years forward we’ll see that King is still writing about small towns and the less-than-ideal living conditions in many of them. His novel Under the Dome is set in a town trapped in a dome that slowly suffocates the residents. King uses a small, working class town, Chester’s Mill, to look at authority and leadership in America, specifically examining the Bush-Cheney Administration. The citizens of the town range from middle class to dirt poor. It’s an appropriate choice because under the right wing rule of the Bush administration it was undoubtedly the middle and working classes that suffered the most, especially when the recession hit in 2008 and continues to impact us to this day.
King crafts a town full of down on their luck folks, a town that runs mostly on money made from meth production. The meth is made by the villainous Big Jim Rennie, deputy sheriff and then actual sheriff of the town, and the production cycle ends up lining the pockets of many residents; without it the town would barely be getting by, but with it the town is ruining itself (again, no specific spoilers, but this plays right into the story’s conclusion).
In Under the Dome, King visits with many small characters for a scene or two, many of them suffering even before the dome cuts off the town. There are people living in trailers, people getting by only by selling pot and oxy, and some people, including the main character, Barbie, an Iraq War veteran, lost souls just passing through town.
In an even more recent novel, Joyland, King writes about a young man, Devin Jones, who is on break from school and working at an amusement park in order to make some money. It’s not hard to see shades of King at that age, working where he could just to stay above water financially. Jones is far from the only character that doesn’t come from a secure economic background, though; the rest of the cast is made up of amusement park workers who know how tricky a business they’re in, one that could crash and burn at any moment. This leads to a unique bond between the workers since they know their performance affects not only their own livelihood, but everyone else’s, too.
King’s upcoming novel, Mr. Mercedes, is described as taking place in “a distressed Midwestern city,” where, “hundreds of desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair.” King contrasts the struggles of the unemployed with the deliberate cruelty of the upper-class, as a stolen Mercedes runs over the line, then backs up and charges again, killing eight people. That violence towards the unemployed looks to capture this very moment in the country when it appears a solution to joblessness is on no one’s mind- no real jobs bill has been passed by Congress since it was broken in 2010., and as the unemployed are demonized as a group of people enjoying “funemployment” by Tea Party activists and some Republican senators and congressmen.
King’s more personal writing shows the same level of concern for America’s working class. In a recent op-ed for The Bangor Daily News, King laments the lack of action taken by Maine’s current senator, Susan Collins, in regards to income inequality. He writes, “Bellows supports raising the minimum wage. Collins opposes it, which makes me roll my eyes in exasperation. A $10.10 per hour wage in an America where gasoline costs $3.65 a gallon — and where a great many Maine workers have to travel long distances to their place of employment — seems fair to me. The idea that 10 bucks an hour will flatten the economy is basically an idea promulgated by rich greedheads who don’t want to pony up what’s fair to hard workers who are struggling to make ends meet.”
In a time when income inequality is at its highest and there are voices coming from Washington that regularly damn those who struggle as “lazy,” King’s voice is as important as ever. Perhaps this is why his books sell so well. In a tweet he sent out not long after he joined Twitter, King said, “Horror is when you know and love the characters, but you also know something very bad is going to happen to them. It’s not the monsters!” If we take King at his word then the success of his books comes from the strength of his characters. Since his characters are rooted in the American working class it may well be that the representation of this class is what has allowed King to become so successful a writer. The monsters are fictitious, but the lives of his characters, and their struggles, are all too real.
Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.