Reviewed by Ian Lipke
It is always unwise to write Stephen King off as a ‘has been’, as a writer who is ‘long past his best’. I think I might have been one of those who judged prematurely. I did not like Sleeping Beauties. When The Outsider came along, I put it on my shelf for attention later. Having read The Institute, I ‘m excited all over again, because for King’s style of writing, this is a master-piece. I remembered similar novels to this one. Think of The Shining and Firestarter. We are seeing in The Institute ideas that King has floated before but which are now dressed in the colours of an administration, hopelessly fraught with problems and unable to see an honourable way ahead.
The Institute represents the bumbling, myopic America, so unable to manage its affairs that its agents kidnap children and murder their parents, then supposedly turn the gifted kids into weapons for use in assassinations. But then some of the children are not all that gifted to begin with – even Luke the hero has only a moderate level of ability in his special field. However, alongside wardsmen and general bully-boys Fred and Zeke, he is an intellectual.
The book opens with the story of a drifter Tim Jamieson who finds himself a job in a small town called Dupray in South Carolina. (Now for that part of the world, there’s a tongue-in-cheek name if ever I heard one). He settles in and eventually becomes a detective. Dupray is one part of a two-fold setting for King’s novel. There is the standard small town into which King has always invested so much of his writing energy over a long career, and there is the den of shame hidden away in the harsh environment of a Maine forest. Authenticity is the key. From the oddball characters of a small town to the voracious midges of Maine – nothing is out of place.
Except the characters. In an Oscar-winning performance the grotty motel keeper fools everybody. He’s rude, ignorant, and slovenly but much more involved in events than we assume. The villains are bad, really evil creatures who run a criminal enterprise of Mengelian proportions, but in turn run scared of the mastermind, a man with a lisp. They conduct the most heinous of crimes, yet maintain this government-backed facility in such a state that the light bulbs are covered in dirt, blind spots occur where conversations can be carried on unheard, the fencing of the property is inadequate to merit the name of prison, and a little old lady cleaner can fool even the most intelligent villain on campus.
Much is made of distinguishing telekinesis from telepathy. Scientific experiments with the most fragile links to science (including water-boarding, would you believe?) are central to the plot. The success of a treatment is the achievement of spots before the subject’s eyes. Even the children are well versed in science – their telepathic abilities enable them to make contact with other children in similar situations to their own, and through telekinesis, combine their talents to move heavy objects around like newly-cooked dumplings.
The whole setup reads ‘spoof’. We’ve even an invocation to Mark Twain when twelve year old Luke sets out on his journey across country and after many scrapes, finds a kindly railway worker – the man with the heart of gold – who aids him on his way with a direction to the small town of Dupray, ‘just a shit splat on a map’ (299), where Tim Jamieson and a town filled with trigger-happy gents come to his aid. The ill-feted gun lobby in the United States comes into favour in King’s book. Never did so few owe so much to so many bullets.
The book is an undoubted tour de force. It depicts an America whose clock has unwound, a society that sees it appropriate to train ‘mental assassins of its children’ to keep ahead of its rivals and calls it ‘duty’. A reversion to the meaningless experimentation as practised by the Nazis shows the ineffectiveness of medical science. Brute force worthy of George W. Bush rules the highways and villages. Only in the deep heart of the small American town is the true way flourishing. Only in the very young – get out of town you old codgers in Congress! – does America have a future.
It must be a coincidence surely – did I read that Donald Trump has a lisp?
By Stephen King
Hodder & Stoughton/Hachette