Finders Keepers, by Stephen King – Time Travel and the Trouble With Present Tense


I wasn’t a huge fan of Mr Mercedes, the first book in the Bill Hodges trilogy. For me, it lacked the twisted energy that I love about King, it seemed to be gruesome and disgusting in all the ways you wanted, but it never quite tied everything together into a driven narrative. King’s magic is in pulling you into a moving story, feeding you drugs of character and snippets of misdeeds, stepping down on the pedal, swerving and taking risks on bumpy routes, and you love it and you forget you’re a literary hostage.

If you’ve been sentient during the run-up to the release of the book, you will know the opening line, because it headed all of the press campaigns: “Wake up, genius.” But don’t let all the comparisons with Misery put you off – I’m convinced that’s a bit of press from Hodder & Stoughton to bring back the old fans and nothing more – because the only thing you really need is a passing knowledge of Mr Mercedes. So, enough of the intro, the question is: is it actually worth it?

I just finished Part 1. It’s taken me since the book’s release to get this far, not because of the book, but because I recently moved house at the same time as doing buckets of overtime at work. But now I’m settled in my new place with two dogs, two guinea pigs and two humans, so I’m starting to find more time for reading and for writing. Which means that I have the time to say this: Finders Keepers is, so far, bludgeoning Mr Mercedes over the back of the head with a page turning blunt instrument. 

The characters, the events, the world that I’m slipping into is all characteristic of the King I love, and same one I feared I had lost with the first Bill Hodges story. Morris Bellamy has been a grotesque joy to explore in Part 1, his place as the delusional, psychotic villain is firmly, deservedly earned and I’m beginning grow very, very afraid for what Part 2 has in store for those who may be meeting him. Pete Saubers, a young boy whose story begins over thirty years after Morris’s is courageous and resourceful, and completely likeable. It’s been said before, so I won’t tire you with some inane discussion on it, but King writes children not just as absorbing characters to root for, but also as complex, honest depictions of how a child is, how they secretly feel and how they make sense of the world around them. That these two characters share a narrative gives me excitement and total horror.

Time Travel

Finders Keepers, as the dust jacket will eagerly tell you, is a story set around three crucial years: 1978, 2009 and 2014 (do not read the dust jacket, read the story, there’s no magic in the dust jacket). Throughout Part 1, the narrative swaps between these years; we see our characters’ histories, their ideas, their families and, most importantly, their trajectories as they traverse their lives, ultimately knit together by small worlds. They will collide eventually and with each swap of decade, each paralleled thought and life echoed across the years, their collision becomes more worrying. 

The Trouble With Present Tense

Part 2 opens, “Kermit William Hodges […] drives along Airport Road” – well, shit, I think to myself. I don’t like present tense. Present tense asks something more of a reader, it asks that you take your attention and use it to push the narrative forward, if you stop caring, you so easily stop reading. With past tense however, past progressive if we’re getting a little technical, you are always playing catch up – if Hodge was driving, you now want to know what he did after he was driving, this opens up the field for the basics: where was he driving? Why? With whom? And what happened after that? But give that in present tense and the questions barely surface, you’re dealing with language that is very matter-of-fact and therefore needs to deliver excitement immediately – sadly, Bill Hodges driving and eating a salad ain’t cutting it so far. In my opinion, the best place for present tense is the opening to a noir, if only those first few sentences of Part 2 actually felt enough like a noir.

And so what comes next? This post has been sat on my dashboard for a couple of weeks and I’ve been continually backspacing and editing it, whilst making my way through Part 2 of the book. I can certainly say that the downbeat final paragraph of this post carries less weight as I’ve persevered, it is not all present tense and in fact the language is playful and the narrative increasingly complex, with delicious twists in time and perspective.

For prolific King readers: These Stephen King Connections Will Blow Your Mind