Saturday, March 14, 2009

Thinner: Vintage King gets new life on audio

I put off reading Stephen King’s Thinner for the better part of two decades. The dust jacket description—lawyer runs down gypsy and is cursed to become, well, thinner—seemed like a decent short story stretched out into a novel. The premise just didn’t grab me.

As it turns out, my fears proved ill-founded. Thinner is an entertaining little novel that is, at its heart, about big concepts, including guilt, the dangers of not accepting responsibility for one’s actions, and the ruinous, generation-spanning cycle of destruction wrought by revenge. Thinner is positively short by King standards (about 300 pages), moves quickly, and contains a couple nasty little shocks that keep you on your toes and leave you feeling unsettled.

I’ve stated before that Stephen King was, in his early career, batting very nearly 1.000 as a writer. If you take a look at his work from 1973’s Carrie through 1987’s Misery and The Eyes of the Dragon, King was consistently great. I submit that The Tommyknockers (1988), written at the height of his drug and alcohol problems, was the first true misstep in King’s career. Now that I’ve finally read Thinner (released in 1984), I find that my rule holds true. It’s a fine book from King’s classic period.

Thinner tells the story of Billy Halleck, an overweight lawyer who gets distracted while driving home (his wife is giving him a handjob) and accidentally runs down an old gypsy woman crossing the street. Halleck avoids what should have a manslaughter conviction because the judge is an old golfing buddy and lets him off the hook. But Halleck can’t escape the scales of justice. The ancient father of Halleck’s victim curses Halleck by laying a scaly finger upon him and uttering the single word, “thinner.”

In the coming weeks, Halleck’s weight begins to drop alarmingly. When the doctors rule out cancer, Halleck realizes that the gypsy’s curse has taken root. The rest of the novel features Halleck chasing down the gypsies to get the curse lifted as his weight plunges from a high of 252 pounds to half that.

King has the problem of trying to convince the reader that a steadily weakening lawyer from a wealthy Connecticut suburb is capable of exerting enough pressure on a stubborn gypsy clan to lift the curse. He neatly sidesteps this problem by introducing the character of Richie “The Hammer” Ginelli, a minor mafia boss and a former client of Halleck’s. Ginelli assists Halleck by lending his unique and persuasive “services” learned in the hard-knock school of organized crime.

There’s a lot to recommend in Thinner. Taduz Lemke, the old gypsy with the power to curse, is a wonderful character, an ancient soul (over 100 years old) from the old world, the last of the Magyar chiefs. Although he’s initially unlikeable, King renders Lemke and the rest of his gypsy clan sympathetic. Though they are dirty and uneducated, and routinely skirt (and cross) the boundaries of the law, the gypsies are treated with open hostility from the hypocritical communities that they visit. Men like Halleck view the gypsies as an unwelcome disease in their safe and pure suburban communities, which are actually corrupt at the core with their unequal systems of justice, “old boy” networks, and inherent prejudices. When Halleck claims that Lemke’s daughter is equally at fault for the accident, since she didn’t look before crossing the street, he shows his unwillingness to accept responsibility for his own actions. Worse, Halleck took advantage of an unfair system of justice and never had to pay for his (and his wife’s) carelessness. Lemke’s curse is a painful lesson in admitting one’s guilt: “There is no push, white man from town,” Lemke says, again and again throughout the story. “No push.”

If you’re a Generation X-er you’ll appreciate the 1980’s time machine that is Thinner. In it you’ll find references to Apples and TRS-80s, Thunderbirds and Novas. Halleck’s family physician casually blows cocaine during a checkup and it doesn’t seem out of place here, given the period. Halleck’s daughter is mentioned as playing a year long game of Dungeons and Dragons.

Thinner contains very little horror until the end and is more accurately classified as a thriller, which may be why King adopted his (unsuccessful) pseudonym Richard Bachman during the book’s initial release. In Thinner, King was attempting something a bit outside his reputation as a horror author.

Veteran actor Joe Mantegna provides the narration for Thinner and he is magnificent, particularly in his portrayal of Ginelli (no surprise here, given that Mantegna has appeared in various gangster films). I’ve previously railed against the inclusion of music in audio books, but this version by Penguin makes excellent use of it, in particular its use of a chilling, off-putting theme whenever the gypsies—or Halleck’s alarmingly plunging weight—are mentioned.

This review also appears on


Falze said...

I'm surprised you hadn't read this for so long. It wasn't a bad read, quick by King standards. Typical Kind ending (read: lame and unsatisfying). As usual, getting there is more like 100% of the fun. Feels like a crippled distant cousin to the Bachman Books 4, though.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Falze, the ending was rather abrupt and a little unsatisfying, although I thought it worked thematically. Halleck made the choice to poison his wife and absolve himself of any blame, and Lemke's curse came home to roost. I don't know if King intended it as a surprise but I could see it coming.