FINDERS KEEPERS, by Stephen King. Scribner, 448 pp., $30.
Is Stephen King an artist? It's a laughable, crucial question: laughable because who can say, what does it even mean? -- but crucial, too, for the way it's defined and complicated the back half of his immensely successful career.
In 1999, King survived a car accident in rural Maine, and afterward it was as if everyone woke up and realized what they had in him. Soon his short fiction was appearing in The New Yorker; he published a well-regarded memoir called "On Writing"; and in 2003, the National Book Foundation bestowed upon him a special citation for his fiction. Some of his books -- "Misery," "The Shining," "Different Seasons" -- took on a retrospective gloss of artistry. The word "Dickensian" started to pop up. After all, hadn't Dickens been popular? Hadn't he written ghost stories?
And yet it's not clear how well this new prestige has served King as a writer. Since the ascent of his reputation, he's produced several self-consciously literary works, and they've been among his very worst -- "Lisey's Story," for instance, is 600 pages of unkilled darlings -- whereas his old-fashioned high-concept entertainments, such as "11/22/63," about a man going through a door in time to stop the Kennedy assassination, have gone on being terrific.
This context is what makes King's new novel, "Finders Keepers," a fascinating artifact, only middlingly compulsive, by his high standards, but a sterling entry into the ongoing argument he's had with himself about the nature of writers, reading and books.
"Finders Keepers" is a sequel to "Mr. Mercedes," King's hard-boiled procedural about a maniac who plows into crowds with his car, but starts by diving deeply into a different tale. In 1978, a reclusive genius named John Rothstein, a hybrid of J.D. Salinger and John Updike (sample title: "The Runner Slows Down") is murdered. The killer, a Rothstein obsessive named Morris Bellamy, buries both the cash and the precious notebooks he steals that night -- then promptly gets a long prison sentence for an unrelated crime.
Decades later, in 2010, a literary-minded high school student, Pete Saubers, finds them. He uses the cash to anonymously supplement his family's precarious income -- the way in which King most actually resembles Dickens from book to book is in his superb depictions of the way money troubles leech the joy out of family life -- and also gets drawn further into the mystery of Rothstein's notebooks. When the money starts to run low, he wonders if perhaps he ought to sell them.
This is the moment when Morris finally gets out of prison, naturally, and also when the trio of unlikely detectives from "Mr. Mercedes" intervene on Pete's behalf. There are few surprises as King pushes Pete and Morris toward their confrontation, but the story is nicely paced, nicely chilling, nicely absorbing.
That moderate praise fits the project: King is most electric when pushing hard against a single supernatural notion, like a swimmer taking a wall, whether it's a diabolical hotel or an impenetrable dome clamped over a small town. But those stories often fall apart toward their endings; "Mr. Mercedes" and "Finders Keepers," forays into relatively straightforward detective fiction, are more evenly pleasurable, perhaps ultimately more satisfying, and their inventiveness and chatty sense of humor make them good company.
And that should be enough. King has given his readers enormous delight over the years. Throughout "Finders Keepers," though, he seems to want more: The book hammers away at the idea of what writers and readers mean to each other, which writers get to survive, what a literary reputation is based on. King seems somehow at war with himself on these questions.
Pete falls in love with Rothstein, and there are moving descriptions of how transporting books can be, but they're interspersed with acidic asides about the nature of literary acceptance. It's not all that surprising to see these -- in an interview last year, King said that Ernest Hemingway "sucks, basically." That's an unforgivably foolish statement, even if you believe that Hemingway's writing is problematic, and doubly revealing because Hemingway's gift was in part for economy and elision, qualities that even King's most ardent partisans could never claim for him.
Early in "Finders Keepers" we get some of Rothstein's supposedly award-winning prose, lines such as "the pistol . . . felt small and final, a thing capable -- if used correctly, and with courage -- of paying all debts." This sucks, basically -- but then, King's genius lies in story, not style. Watching him fight that fact is what makes his new book more interesting than its plot.