(Donald M. Grant/Scribner)
Describing a figure whose book sales number somewhere in the quadrillions as a "cult author" is clearly not a rational act. Such a term, however, perfectly describes the unholy fervor for Stephen King's long-developing Dark Tower series, a projected seven-volume saga of the sort that makes devoted readers chain themselves to armchairs for the weekend and consider taking out life-insurance policies on the author. The fifth entry, The Wolves of the Calla finds King working near the top of his considerable game, albeit with some worrying tendencies towards the fanboyish.
For the uninitiated, the saga follows the adventures of Roland, a dead-eyed, mystic gunslinger who leads a motley crew--a street-smart junkie, a twice-dead youngster, an intelligent weasel, and a beautiful amputee whose rapidly multiplying personalities provide the doomy backbeat for much of this installment--through a series of disintegrating universes in search of the cosmic lynchpin of the title. Imagine J.R.R. Tolkien doing Sergio Leone for an idea of the epic scope and crack-maddening nature of King's series.
The plot of Calla finds the wanderers waylaid in a frontier town where children have a dismaying tendency to vanish every year, only to return as freakish idiot giants. Said riddle is rather easily resolved, however, which gives King plenty of pages to dabble in self-referential metafiction. Recurring characters and themes are nothing new to King, but this marks the first book where a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the author's other work (especially Salem's Lot) is required for maximum comp rehension. Long-time readers will take this in stride; newcomers may find the task daunting.
Labeling a novel as suitable for fans only may unfairly undercut the considerable virtues on display, from the finely sketched character development to the author's deceptively casual knack for clear, balanced prose. Still, warning must be given. For better or worse (but, for the time being, mostly better), King's mammoth magnum opus is shaping up to be the Adaptation of pop fiction. Don't blow it, Steve. ANDREW WRIGHT