A confused, dreamlike, challenging book.
We meet Roland, a lone traveler who is pursuing an ancient enemy, The Man in Black. Roland is a gunslinger, a cross between a Wild West lawman and a medieval knight, and that he is the last guardian of a world that has “moved on”. What this means is something he can’t say, but it may have been a nuclear war.
He is trying to find (via the Man in Black) the Dark Tower, an existential pylon that supports all the worlds in the universe. Roland believes that the Dark Tower is in jeopardy, and that if it fell all would be lost.
Why he’s taking the trouble is a mystery, since everything in his world is either dead or dying. Mutants, demons, endless deserts, crazy preachers, and men with the heads of animals are common sights. Technology seems to have regressed to that of the turn-of-the-century Wild West, although from time to time he encounters relics from a technological past (notably an abandoned shopping mall). Occasionally, Roland reminisces about his idyllic childhood in the green land of Gilead, and hopes that life will once again be like that someday.
The book – even in the revised edition King put out not too long ago – reads like a drug trip, and can be a little hard to follow. Nobody has a straight conversation: they talk in stilted and elliptical sentences that sound like they’ve been passed around a Chinese Whispers circle one too many times. King plays tricks with the narrative (the first couple of scenes play out in reverse chronological order), and you get the sense that time and space are decaying in Roland’s world, along with technology.
It was written by a young man (as King points out in the introduction), and there’s a vibe of “this much obscurity will absolutely score me points at my college writer’s circle!” going on, but the story, once you deconvolve it, is simple. The plot is simple. Just a guy chasing another guy.
In its final pages, the book unexpectedly sticks in the knife and twists. Roland is offered a choice, and makes what seems like the only correct choice: to damn his soul. It’s described in mute, understated terms, but it’s unusually effective.
The story truly takes flight in The Drawing of the Three (which may be my favorite of King’s works), and then crashes down to earth in later volumes. Roland will be fine. The books, on the other hand…