Summary from Goodreads
Hearts in Atlantis is composed of five interconnected, sequential narratives set in the years from 1960 to 1999. Each story is deeply rooted in the sixties, and each is haunted by the Vietnam War. Full of danger, suspense, and full of heart, Hearts in Atlantis takes some readers to a place they have never been…and others to a place they have never been able to completely leave.
Hearts in Atlantis was an interesting undertaking. What I assumed to be a short story collection was actually a strange beast all on its own. The first story “Low Men in Yellow Coats” could be a novel in its own right, same goes for “Hearts in Atlantis,” which follows, then the book concludes with three short stories. My initial reason for reading this book was the first story, which prominently ties-in to the Dark Tower series, but I resolved to finish it I’m left both enchanted by the writing and a little befuddled at the mixed focus of the whole thing.
“Low Men in Yellow Coats” is by far the most engaging story that captures both the wonders of childhood and the eventual loss of innocence, though here it happens in a particularly traumatic way. Bobby Garfield, an 11-year-old boy, befriends his new upstairs neighbor Ted Brautigan, a mysterious old man with strange abilities. We see Bobby’s friendship with Ted grow, his deeper discovery of literature, a budding romance with a childhood friend, and his shaky relationship with his mother, all while otherworldly forces Ted calls the “low men” creep into their lives.
It creates an interesting duality in the story, forming it as its own self-contained narrative that also connects to something much bigger, though ultimately secondary to the book as a whole. While these Low Men and what they mean to the Dark Tower are very real, they never take prominence in the story beyond what they threaten, which is Bobby’s relationship with Ted. Ultimately it is the boy’s childhood experiences and confrontations with grim reality that are most important.
What’s most meaningful about the length of “Low Men in Yellow Coats” is how it sets out to cement the magical feelings of childhood, regardless of the bad things that happen. Following the array of characters introduced in this initial story — save for Pete Riley, the protagonist in “Hearts in Atlantis” — we are thrust into the more serious matters of the 1960s, most substantially the Vietnam War, and the harsh realities that come along. We see a number of perspectives on the conflict, whether related to the Peace movement of the time and those committed to the idea of fighting for one’s country. While I’d say there’s an anti-war slant to the book, I like how balanced it is in terms of perspective. The militant characters on either side are ultimately good intentioned, yet have their faults and sometimes make disastrous mistakes or missteps. At the end of it all you feel for them, even if you don’t always agree with how far they take some things.
The mounting anxiety of the characters in “Hearts in Atlantis” is particularly effective too, as these young men become addicted to a playing card game in the dorm at school at a time where failing could literally be a death sentence. On the surface, it sounds so foolhardy of them, and it is, but there’s something woefully relatable about the behaviour of getting in too deep with something you enjoy. You get frustrated at them, yet it feels all too real, even if you’ve been lucky enough to live a life free of the consequences they face.
Another thing I especially like is how each story reads very differently from the ones that come before or after them, despite all being written by King. There are cosmetic touches I like a lot that contribute to this, such as how he divides chapters differently in each story, but each also has a clearly distinct voice. When I started reading “Hearts in Atlantis” it was especially evident. It almost felt like I had started a completely different book entirely, even though I was only halfway through the actual book in my hands.
All in all, Stephen King’s Hearts in Atlantis is a wonderfully poignant book that expertly balances moments of delight against trauma, violence, the horrors of war, and a dash of the unknown. I find the Dark Tower connections a little strange, considering the ultimate point of the whole book, but I didn’t find it took anything away from the overall experience. I loved what it contributed to this book and that series, it just feels a tad indulgent at the same time. If you’re going through The Dark Tower I definitely recommend making a stop here before you get to the last book. If not, that’s fine too, you hardly need to be following that series to enjoy this book. As a 26 year old Canadian I’m far removed from 1960s America, but this book has given me a powerful glimpse of it.