Synopsis: From the 26-year-old scion of literary giant Stephen King comes a compelling, imaginative debut collection of four short stories both creepy and heartfelt, plus a compassionate novella about a 15-year-old son of a single mother. Set in Maine around the 2000 election, the title novella captures the teenage narrator's anger over his mother's impending marriage to Dr. Vic, while his family, led by a union organizer grandfather, seethes over Bush's election. George lays siege to his mother's relationship and helps his grandfather build a sniper's nest from which to attack the paperboy who defaces the old man's "Al Gore is the Real President" sign. Freaks and weirdos—external symptoms of his protagonists' inner struggles—people King's shorter stories, which strive to balance the lurid with a reach for emotional truth. In "Wonders," about a baseball player who takes his pregnant girlfriend to a Coney Island circus freak abortionist, the macabre and the heartfelt feel discordant, and the story ends with unearned violence. But in "Frozen Animals," King achieves a surreal blend of gory, vivid description of unanesthetized dental surgery layered with the drug-addicted dentist's intermittent memories of a happier past. This original collection heralds the arrival of the next generation.
Stephen King has one seriously talented family. His wife, Tabitha, published her debut novel in 1981 and went on to write a number of books of high literary value, mostly focusing on women's issues. The couple's older son, Joe Hill, writes incredible horror a'la his father, making for some of the finest novels I've read in the last few years. And, of course, there's Owen, the younger son. His writing style is definitely the most mainstream of his family members' stuff, combining great character work worthy of his father with the literary tendencies of his mother's material to create fiction that is all his own -- fiction populated by memorable characters, humor, and lots of heart, making for the most accessible stuff to come from the King family.
Back in early 2013 I read King's debut novel, Double Feature, and thought it was one of the best novels I'd read in a long, long time. I decided to order King's first book -- the one being reviewed now, We're All In This Together -- which is comprised of the title novella and four short stories, but once I got it in the mail I just never got around to it for one reason or another. I just had too many other books vying for my attention, I suppose. At any rate, I put off reading this story collection until the very end of 2015, almost three years after originally getting it. Oops.
So . . . Is it good? Heck yes it is. I regret every day I went without reading this collection, not that that surprises me. King proved to me with Double Feature that he was a very talented author with the skill of a veteran in the field -- he's certainly not riding the coattails of his parents. Like Double Feature, We're All In This Together is grounded in realism and filled with characters that aren't exactly likable . . . but ya end up liking them, anyway. Owen King doesn't write about easily likable people but instead writes about smart-mouthed teens, grumpy old men, alcoholic fathers, cheating mothers, et cetera. Every story here deals with divorce and love lost and the consequences the ripping apart of human relationships have on all those involved. That probably doesn't sound too appealing, but in King's hands the reader clearly sees how these people -- people who have at least a little good inside, all of 'em -- came to be the way they are. He is the master of creating sympathetic characters. The tragedies King writes about are very human tragedies.
Picking a favorite story in this collection is hard because they're all great. I felt the title novella dragged just a bit, hence me knocking off half a star. Since this collection is made up of only five tales, all five need to be near-perfect and that one should have been shored up just a little. Still, politics is one of my biggest interests and the story-line of "We're All In This Together" -- which deals heavily with the results of the 2000 presidential election -- definitely appealed to me so any needless wordage has been forgiven on my end. I loved the imagery of "Frozen Animals" (and this was the one story that sort of creeped me out . . . Well, it had me on edge) and "My Second Wife" is one of the funniest things I've read in a while. "Wonders" was a story I ended up liking more than I thought I would. I'm not a fan of baseball, and I thought that was what this story was going to be all about. The sport is an element here, but that's all -- only an element. And "Snake" is a story I knew nothing about before going into it, but I really liked that one as well and thought it, arguably, handled the topic of divorce better than any other story here.
We're All In This Together is a damn fine collection by one of my favorite authors. Don't go into it expecting son to write just like father -- there are no scares to be found here. Instead, expect to be subject to some of the finest character development I've witnessed in some time, as well as stories filled with a lot of humor and heart. If you've yet to extend your reading from Stephen King to the members of his immediate family, you could do much worse than starting here.