Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The New Yorker: "Premium Harmony" by Stephen King

Ray and Mary argue. She’s fat and he smokes, and they argue about that. They argue about the lawn, they argue about Biznezz, their Jack Russell terrier. But as Ray knows, “It’s really all the same argument. It has circularity.” In addition to arguing, they lie. He lies about how much he smokes and she lies about the Little Debbie cakes she eats. As the story opens, they’re on their way to Wal-Mart, but Mary wants to stop at the Quik-Pik to get a purple ball for her niece, a 99 cent birthday present. And Ray asks her to also get some cigarettes while she’s inside and he stays with the dog in the car, and to save money he’s willing to accept Premium Harmony, a cheap brand. We get the point. They don’t have much money, but they’re killing themselves with the things they’re wasting money on. Which is what happens.

When Mary doesn’t come back, Ray investigates. (We’ve seen him keep the windows up because it’s so hot, so when he locks the door, leaving the dog inside, we know what’s going to happen.) He gets into the store and finds Mary dead on the floor from an apparent heart attack. He protests, but he’s not terribly upset about it. It takes some time for formalities, the body is carted away. Time goes by, and then he remembers the dog. Who, when Ray opens the door, is dead, and Ray is both amused and saddened by the idea of a baked Jack Russell terrier.

Ray now cries, but it occurs to him that now no one will complain about his smoking. He can smoke when and where he pleases.

What? This is a story? Stephen King gets away with this?

November 9, 2009: “Premium Harmony” by Stephen King


Tim said...

First, I'm a fan of your comments on New Yorker stories, always check up on the ones I've read, and sometimes decide on the ones I haven't (or not yet) read—but (isn't it terrible the way compliments come as a cover for carping!), I think you got this one wrong. "Premium Harmony" is a hoot and a holler, the lugubrious ludicrousness of little people, i.e. all of us. I'm still laughing at "[The E.M.T.] tells the little crowd that there's nothing to see, as if anyone's going to believe a dead woman on the Quik-Pik floor isn't interesting." There's a Little Debbies factory eleven miles south of you in Stuarts Draft. I think you should make a pilgrimage. P.S. Still a fan, keep up the good work.

Clifford Garstang said...

Yes, the Little Debbie factory is famous around here. I almost mentioned it in my comments. I'll admit that there's some funny stuff here, and it makes for a nice, condescending little slice of life--I just don't think it's a story, using the narrow definition of that term.

But I love it when people disagree with me! Not that it's terribly unusual. In fact, I imagine someone will come along and say the story's even worse than I think!

Xing said...

This is the first time in the past 3 months that I've read one of your New Yorker blog comments without nodding along. Perhaps, it's just a matter of tastes?

I'm not a traditional fan of King, but I did enjoy his O'Henry winner "The Man in the Black Suit" as well as memoir sections of his book "On Writing." He can be more than a genre writing when he chooses to be.

To me, Premium Harmony really captured the desolation of man trapped in a life he never wanted to be in. I connected with his inappropriate thoughts at grossly inappropriate times, at his petty squabbles with his wife, and at his guilt. King was a little too glib too often, and the humor was a little off-beat and at some parts, cruel, but at the same time, doesn't that just make this man's narrative all the more pathetic, and all the sadder?

For example, I found it touching that the only time the husband shows emotion is when he discovers his dog is dead--that the jealousy of his dog's affection for his wife is what triggers the tears. Yes, it's super petty, but it's also human and realistic, and it's what finally makes him realize that he is all alone.

Anyways, just my 2 cents. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

I can only second what Tim and Cliff said. Love your comments, but couldn't disagree more with this one. To me, "Premium Harmony" was one of this years most enjoyable New Yorker stories.

ballard7 said...

Cliff -- I agree with you totally. I am a King fan (all of his work, including all of his stories appearing in the New Yorker, and I believe "Premium Harmony" is his sixth story there), and I couldn't believe this little vignette was in here. Sure, it has funny observations, and sure, the characters are low-life and petty (so we can look down on them and smirk), but there was no SUBSTANCE to this piece. This looked to me like something that may have been written a long time agon and perhaps dusted off recently (like UNDER THE DOME was), because there just isn't much point to it -- the irony is forced and the characters are trailer park stereotypes (well, okay, that is harsh -- but they stay what they are even at the end of the story). This, at best, is a scene, nothing more.

bryanbr said...

Of course, he gets away with it. He is Steven Edwin King.

The way I read King is that I find the banal trailer trash types in his stuff and just skip over them. Entire chapters populated with morons and high school level dipshits, never get read by me. Or the two paragraphs of gratuitous graphic detail that serves no story purpose? BAM! Just skip right over it.

His good characters, good dialog, pop culture weavings, make up for the crud.

I am in complete agreement.

Anonymous said...

I just read this story and had to find a blog talking about it. It was AWFUL. Full of clichéd imagery, hackneyed dialogue, and not an honest emotion in it.

It's the perfect example of the New Yorker preference for names over quality. This story wouldn't make it out of an undergrad creative writing class if not for the byline.

Paul Epstein said...

Not sure whether Anonymous means the undergrad creative writing comparison literally.

I have taken several such classes, and in my opinion, nobody (including myself) produced a story nearly as good as this one.

I'm in the positive camp on this one -- but I'm afraid I haven't got anything to add beyond the positive comments already made.

By the way, unlike Cliff, I didn't anticipate the death of the dog. I did find the coincidence of the two deaths a little bit contrived -- a shame because I don't think the death of the dog added anything to the story.

Paul Epstein

Jeff said...

I'm what could be called a fair-weather King fan, I guess. I delight in the man's moxie, churning out books loaded with humongous, larger-than-life (and sometimes death) themes, yet I usually find his actual volumes tiresome and plodding. However, 'Salem's Lot, for me, is probably one of the ten best novels I've ever read so King always has a little goodwill for me on that front alone.

This particular story, while gleefully spiteful and nasty, is ultimately an empty read. If you don't give me some sort of narrative payoff, you'd best hit me with a revelation regarding character or theme by your final paragraph.

This basically stated at the outset "life sucks" and ended with "life sucks and then you die."

I have no problem with 'slice of life' fiction. Could read Raymond Carver all day, every day. This, while amusing in the details, was an anti-story.

By the by, awesome blog you have here Mr. Garstang! I will put it on my regular rounds!

finite said...

Cliff could have easily looked back at the story after reading and acknowledged that the windows were left closed. Then after that, concluded that he predicted the dog was going to die.

Clifford Garstang said...

I guess finite here is calling me a liar. Whatever. I write fiction and details like leaving the windows rolled up are included in a lean story like this for a reason. When the guy goes into the store, any dog lover should have asked himself--wait a minute, what about the dog?

A. Putty said...

Yeah, but wasn't the fact that he wasn't a dog lover precisely the point?

Dominique said...

I had to read this during my last fiction workshop. I don't remember the comments, but I do remember I felt the ending was too easy. I do feel that it is a story though, but I'm sure the definition isn't as strict as some people take it to be.

Dominique said...

By the way, the death of the dog was totally expected and I was dreading it. It added nothing and I think it's a big reason why I didn't like the story overall. But I'm biased: I'm a die-hard animal lover (even if it's all fictional).