On April 26, 1998 Jeffrey Cox walked into a classroom in San Gabriel High School with a semi-automatic rifle and 200 rounds of ammunition. He proceeded to fire his weapon and force the teacher out of the room while he held the remaining 70 students hostage. He then ordered pizza, soda, and cigarettes. He loved Rage. On September 18, 1989, Dustin Pierce held his algebra class hostage for nine hours. A copy of Rage was found in his bedroom. On February 2, 1996, Barry Loukaitis walked into his algebra class and killed his teacher and two students; he planned on holding the rest of the class for ransom, but he was disarmed by another teacher. Loukaitis claimed to have modeled his life after Rage’s Charlie Decker. On December 1, 1997, Michael Carneal walked into his high school and shot eight of his fellow students, three of whom died. He had a copy of Rage in his locker.
(If you intend the read this book, beware of the spoilers in this paragraph.) One spring morning in Maine, Charlie Decker walks out of his high school principal’s office, sets his locker on fire, and returns to his algebra class with a gun. He kills his teacher and then a second teacher who tries to walk in the door. Meanwhile, the fire in his locker sets off the alarm and the school is evacuated. Charlie and the students remain in the classroom as the school is surrounded by the police and media. As the day wears on, the hostage situation turns into a confessional of sorts – sex, drugs, and disillusionment are the order of the day. They bond over the inability to feel real and familial dysfunction. In fact, they almost have a good time – everyone except Ted. Ted is the only one truly held against his will and the students know it. Charlie just sits back and gets it on. By the time he ends the standoff at 1:00pm, the other students have beaten Ted into a catatonic state. He never recovers. Charlie is found in the classroom by a police officer. The cop shoots him, assuming he was armed. He wasn’t. The novel ends with a recovered Charlie, in an asylum, receiving a friendly letter from one of the students he held at gunpoint, wishing him well.
“Now out of print, and a good thing” is how the author describes one of the first novels he ever wrote. Rage is filled with the angst, insecurity, and anger that typically permeates at least some part of our teenage years – mine included – and King relied heavily upon his own pain and frustration experienced in high school while writing this novel. In my opinion, Stephen King is the master of showing the horror – the truly evil deeds – that humans can inflict upon one another. What he excels at, and what I believe Rage lacks, is tempering evil with sense and hope. This novel was written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman and I think the bleak, dark (and sometimes blackly humorous) tone of this novel is Bachman’s signature, rather than King’s. King explains it better than me:
“Bachman–a fictional creation who became more real to me with each published book which bore his byline–was a rainy-day sort of guy if ever there was one. The good folks mostly win, courage usually triumphs over fear, the family dog hardly ever contracts rabies; these are things I knew at twenty-five, and things I still know now, at the age (almost) of 25 x 2. But I know something else as well: there’s a place in most of us where the rain is pretty much constant, the shadows are always long, and the woods are full of monsters. It is good to have a voice in which the terrors of such a place can be articulated and its geography partially described, without denying the sunshine and clarity that fills so much of our ordinary lives. For me, Bachman was that voice.”
There is no doubt Charlie Decker is angry. He is hateful and he is self-righteous. He’s also the victim of abuse, neglect, and bullying. Charlie’s rage boils over into his current situation – his algebra class, as it happens – without any thought to the consequences. He needs someone to blame, but he doesn’t have that, not really, because in the end we all have to own our actions. He does so in such a way that there can be no silver lining. I can’t say that I empathize with Charlie, but I am not without understanding either. Being a teenager sucks and being an abused, ostracized teenager sucks even more, but ultimately he is still an unstable boy who brought a gun to school to prove a point that no one would ever buy. Even if that’s not the way it goes in the book…
“They understood that. They all understood it. This is not the same as comprehension, but it was good enough. When you stop to think, the whole idea of comprehension has a faintly archaic taste, like the sound of forgotten tongues or a look into a Victorian camera obscura. We Americans are much higher on simple understanding. It makes it easier to read the billboards when you’re heading into town on the expressway at plus-fifty. To comprehend, the mental jaws have to gape wide enough to make the tendons creak. Understanding, however, can be purchased on every paperback-book rack in America.”
For what it’s worth, I suspect my own reading of this novel is heavily influenced by what I believe and where I live. And while it won’t win me any popularity points, I’ll be honest, I am vehemently anti-gun. I don’t own a gun, I will never own a gun, I would not even date a person who owned a gun. I may cut you a bit of slack if you live in the wilds of Montana, but, for my fellow suburban residents, I will never understand why you need one, nor will I ever understand why lawmakers insist on making it so easy to buy one. For a reason that mystifies me, people fail to connect guns to gun related crime. Yet it’s not stretch of the imagination to connect gun related violence to books, movies, or music…
Furthermore, I live in Colorado where there’s an extensive history of (recent) gun violence against children*. It’s hard to routinely drive by a movie theater where 70 people were shot in a matter of minutes and be sympathetic to the laments of the NRA. I find it hard to be sympathetic to the Charlie Deckers of the world, although I do think it’s imperative to try. As for the novel itself, the writing is serviceable, but not great. The characters are compelling, but they lack depth. Despite this, I think it’s a good, important book and it’s a shame to see it out of print (yet I completely understand why). King sets out to show how dangerous an angry boy can be, he sets out to show the evil that can result from real (or imagined) teenage ostracization, and in that he’s a raging success. In the end, that’s what makes Rage such a powerful read.
Do you ever read books that you know will hit a little too close to home? I think one of the things Rage handles really well is the dark side of the teenage experience. So what about you? Were you teenage years good, bad, or indifferent? I moved around so much that I never really knew anyone and no one ever knew me, so I was a loner by default.