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Literature / Hearts in Atlantis

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Hearts in Atlantis is a 1999 anthology of interconnected stories written by Stephen King. The bulk of the stories concern the Baby Boomer generation and life in The '60s, as well as the impact of the Vietnam War.

Low Men in Yellow Coats: In 1960, young Bobby Garfield befriends an older man named Ted Brautigan living in his boarding house. Bobby soon discovers that Ted possesses psychic abilities and is being pursued by the sinister 'Low Men in Yellow Coats'. Has explicit ties to The Dark Tower.

Hearts in Atlantis: In 1966, a group of young men attend college to avoid having to serve in Vietnam. When they become addicted to playing 'Hearts', their grades begin to suffer and the threat of getting drafted looms.

Blind Willie: In 1983, a Vietnam vet disguises himself as a blind beggar as a form of penance for an act he committed during his childhood.

Why We're in Vietnam: In 1999, a Vietnam vet and childhood friend of Bobby attends the funeral of another veteran and is haunted by the horrors that he witnessed during the war.

Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling: Bobby returns to his former home as an adult and confronts his past.

Low Men in Yellow Coats was made into a 2001 film adaptation directed by Scott Hicks and starring Anthony Hopkins and Anton Yelchin. It was still called Hearts in Atlantis.

The book and film provide examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Bobby's mother is at least emotionally distant and neglectful of her son. She gets especially nasty after she's been raped by her boss, accusing Bobby of being involved in molesting Carol.
    • Willie looks at a picture of his family and sees his father smiling "like he'd never pushed his son over in his high chair or hit his wife with a beer bottle".
  • Adaptational Location Change: The novella was set in Connecticut, while the film is strongly implied to take place (and was shot) in Virginia. The Cape Henry Lighthouses are clearly seen during the fair scene.
  • Animate Inanimate Object: The Low Men's cars are implied to be sentient.
  • Artifact Title: As the title story was not adapted in the film, the title itself has little bearing on the actual film besides an offhand comment about childhood from Ted.
  • Artistic License – History: Pete and Carol bond over being fans of The Prisoner (1967), despite the story being set a year before the series aired. King acknowledges this in the afterward, saying the show fit so much better than anything else from the period he could think of that he went ahead with it anyway.
  • The Atoner: Much of Willie Sherman's life is spent trying to repent for his involvement in Carol's injury when he was a kid.
  • Auto Erotica: Pete Riley loses his virginity to Carol in his station wagon.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Alanna Files, who runs the pool hall Bobby's dad used to hang out at. The narration notes that she's big enough to be a circus fat lady, but has lovely shoulders, smooth skin, and makes herself up prettily.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Malenfant is French for 'evil child.'
  • Bittersweet Ending: Most of the stories, fitting in with the theme of loss in the 60's:
    • Ted is taken away by the Low Men, and Bobby never sees him again. He gets involved in crime and alcohol as a teenager, but begins mending his ways when he receives an envelope of rose petals and realizes Ted has escaped again.
    • Pete manages to get out of the Hearts game and save his college career, but many of his dorm mates end up getting sent to Vietnam. Carol also disappears into a life of radicalism, and he wonders forever after what happened to her.
    • Sully-John dies of a heart attack in traffic, but is comforted by a vision of the old mamasan and lets go of life peacefully.
    • Bobby mourns Sully and finds Harwich almost unrecognizable. But he's reunited with Carol after many years, and they are both comforted by a final note from Ted.
  • Brick Joke: Inverted in the film. Bobby receives S-J's glove at the beginning, after his funeral. Later, it's shown that S-J promised to write in his will that Bobby will receive the glove.
  • Canon Welding:
    • The first story ties significantly into The Dark Tower; Ted Brautigan is a Breaker and the Low Men are agents of the Crimson King. Ted even reappears in the final novel of the Tower series.
    • It's also heavily implied that Carol Gerber got involved with Randall Flagg himself.
  • The City Narrows: The bad part of Bridgeport. According to King, a fictional part of a real city.
  • Cool Old Guy: Ted, again.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Bill Sherman has several different identities to mask his day job, begging on a street corner as Blind Willie. He even has a secret exit in his office and rotates his morning commute to throw off anyone trying to track him.
  • Death by Adaptation: Carol dies in the film.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Bobby (her childhood love), Sully-John (her first lover) and Pete (who she has a Friends with Benefits relationship with in college) all fall for Carol at various points in her life. None of them end up in a full relationship with her.
  • Dirty Cop: Officer Jasper "the Police Smurf" Wheelock takes sadistic pleasure in mocking and harassing Blind Willie when he begs for money on a street corner, doing it because he doesn't believe Willie's blind (and also hypocritically extorting bribes from him at the same time).
  • Dirty Old Man: Bobby's mother accuses Ted of being this and molesting Bobby (not helped by her having just been sexually assaulted herself and walking in to find Ted with a girl the same age as Bobby sitting on his lap with her shirt half-off - he's fixing her dislocated arm). Deep down, however, she just feels guilty for neglecting her son.
  • Disappeared Dad: Bobby's father died of a heart attack when his son was just three.
  • Doing In the Wizard: A partial version in the movie. Ted Brautigan has psychic powers in both versions, but the movie turns the story's antagonists into government agents who want to recruit psychics in the fight against the Communists. In the story, they were semi-human agents of the Crimson King trying to recruit an army of psychics to bring about the collapse of the universe.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Pete Riley's dorm-mate Stokely Jones lost the use of his legs in a car accident, but refuses help when people try to carry things for him and tears around campus on his crutches as fast as he can. Years later, Pete realizes that Stoke might very well have demanded a room in their dorm (on the third floor) purely out of pride.
  • Draft Dodging: The characters in the title story try to do this (though, of course, a student deferment isn't technically draft dodging).
  • Dying Dream: Everything Sully experiences in the traffic jam, where he dies of a heart attack.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Carol Gerber is referred to by the bullies as 'the Gerber Baby'.
  • Faking the Dead: Carol ends up doing this and living under an assumed name, but she's able to reconnect with Bobby at the end.
  • Finger-Snapping Street Gang: Referenced. When Bobby runs into the Blue Devils street gang, he briefly fantasizes that they'll help him save Ted from the low men in yellow coats while "snapping their fingers like the Jets in West Side Story". Reality ensues a moment later when they tell him that there's no way in hell they're tangling with the inhuman low men.
  • First Kiss: Bobby and Carol have a particularly tender one at the top of a Ferris wheel. The narration notes "It was the kiss by which all the others of his life would be judged and found wanting".
  • The Gambling Addict: The college students in "Hearts in Atlantis".
  • Genius Book Club: Ted is an expert on books.
  • The Ghost: Sully, Blind Willie, and Ronnie Malenfant all serve alongside a black soldier named Slocum in Vietnam who ends up stopping Malenfant and his friends from massacring a village. He never appears in person, and commits suicide years after the war ends, but has a profound effect on both Sully and Willie.
  • Government Conspiracy: In the movie.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Carol becomes involved with a radical revolutionary group led by a man named Raymond Fiegler, who teaches her a form of invisibility called being dim; readers familiar with The Stand and The Eyes of The Dragon will know that Fiegler is Randall Flagg, the dark man. The Crimson King serves as this for the first novella, ‘Low Men in Yellow Coats’.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The Low Men are implied to be these in the book. The Dark Tower books later reveal that they're actually the servants of the Crimson King, a particularly nasty one.
  • I Am Spartacus: When the college administration tries to find who made profane anti-war graffiti with a (then new and largely misunderstood) peace sign, all the students claim they've been putting the symbol on their stuff for months.
  • I Have Many Names: Willie Shearman, one of Bobby's childhood bullies, goes by several aliases and personas to disguise his day job:
    • In his day-to-day life, he's mild-mannered New York businessman Bill Shearman.
    • When moving around the city, he becomes a gregarious heating and AC repairman named Willie, who dresses like a washed-up mercenary.
    • When begging on a street corner during his blind phase of the day, he is wounded veteran Blind Willie Garfield.
    • The story ends with Willie adopting a new identity, Blind Willie Slocum, to deal with his Corrupt Cop nemesis.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Bobby and Ted.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: Each chapter of Low Men in Yellow Coats is headed with a synopsis.
  • Jerkass: Ronnie Malenfant in spades. An obnoxious, foul-mouthed, greedy moron who starts the Hearts game that almost causes the entire dorm to flunk out of college. Pretty much nobody likes him, and he only gets worse after going to Vietnam, where he murders an old woman pretty much for his own amusement...
  • Karma Houdini: ...which makes it hard for Sully to stomach when he learns Malenfant has joined Alcoholics Anonymous in his later years, confessed his crimes, and feels much better about himself, and that's all that happens to him.
  • Loophole Abuse: Tired of being harassed by Officer Wheelock and paranoid that Wheelock will arrest him, Willie considers killing him, but can't bring himself to ruin his years of self-inflicted penance... until he remembers his squadmate, Slocum, and realizes he can make a new persona who CAN do the deed. The story ends with Willie wondering what might happen if Blind Willie Slocum were to track Jasper Wheelock home one day...
  • Mature Work, Child Protagonists: The opening novella "Low Men In Yellow Coats" explores a 10-year-old boy named Bobby spending the summer of 1960 with his best friend, falling for a girl, and being mentored by a mysterious elderly man who moves into the room above his home. It could almost be a YA novel until rape, heartbreak, and a clan of sinister humanoid creatures enter the story.
  • Moving-Away Ending: "Low Men In Yellow Coats" has a VERY Bittersweet Ending when Bobby moves away from Harwich with his mother, leaving Carol behind after finally telling her he loves her. She keeps in touch with him for a while through letters but they lose contact as he becomes a juvenile delinquent.
  • My Greatest Failure: Willie firmly believes that Carol's involvement in domestic terrorism and the subsequent bombing in Danbury, Connecticut was caused by the day he held Ritchie beat her up with a baseball bat. His entire adult life is devoted to doing penance for his part.
  • Nice Guy: Nate Hoppenstad in "Hearts in Atlantis"; Skip says Nate is "an alien, beamed down from the planet Good Boy". He doesn't play Hearts and concentrates on his studies, he almost never swears and he has a girlfriend at home whom he eventually marries. He also starts to oppose the war in Vietnam before others.
  • "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer: In the introduction, Stephen King writes:
    Although it is hard to believe, the sixties are not fictional; they actually happened.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Understandably, all of the Dark Tower references were removed from the film. As such, the Low Men are government agents who want to use Ted's ability for their own purposes.
  • Psychic Dreams for Everyone: After gaining a bit of Ted's psychic abilities, Bobby dreams about his mother being raped by her employers.
  • Re-Cut: "Blind Willie" was originally part of a limited edition anthology called 'Six Stories'. When King added it to Hearts in Atlantis he revised it significantly, making the character Willie Sherman from "Low Men".
  • Sanity Slippage: in the title story, college dorm-mates begin cracking under the pressure of studying to keep from being drafted into the Vietnam War. Almost all of them become obsessed with an ongoing Hearts game in the rec room, eventually (and ironically) neglecting their studies and personal lives in favor of playing cards. It culminates with all of them laughing hysterically as they see a disabled student slip in icy rain and almost drown; the event finally snaps Pete and Skip out of their Hearts delirium, and they work hard together to keep from being expelled.
  • Self-Serving Memory: A minor example. In Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling, Bobby recalls once yelling at his mom that Carol wasn't his "little girlfriend", but doubts that he's remember it correctly, since he wouldn't have dared be that rude to her. A reader who flips back to Low Men in Yellow Coats can find the scene he's thinking about and verify that he's right to doubt - he didn't actually yell or even say it out loud, he just really wanted to.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Sully and every Vietnam vet he knows.
  • Shout-Out: Ted gives Bobby a copy of Lord of the Flies. The book itself is important to the story both as an object (it's passed around to different characters throughout) and thematically.
  • Sinister Car: In Low Men in Yellow Coats, the titular Low Men drive garish cars that are implied to be sentient and malevolent.
  • Summer Romance: Part of Bobby's summer of 1960 is spent falling for his friend Carol, eventually sharing their first kiss at the top of a Ferris wheel. Sadly it doesn’t last, as Bobby and his mother move away before summer ends.
  • Temporary Blindness: It is implied (though not stated outright) that Willie suffers from hemaralopia (or "day blindness") caused by an injury in Vietnam. All we're told is by the time he's on the street corner, he is completely and legitimately blind.
    • It can also be read as Bill Shearman engaging in a type of self-hypnosis, putting himself so deep into the role of Blind Willie that he actually becomes blind.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: After Ted is forced to leave, Bobby starts acting out violently and getting in trouble with the law, being sent to juvie several times.
  • War Crime Subverts Heroism: In "Why We're in Vietnam", Sully is haunted by a massacre committed by his battalion, in particular the death of an old "mama-san" who appears to him at the moment of his death.
  • War Is Hell: Shown with Sully's recollection of the war.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Painfully brought home in the final story: Bobby returns home to see how everything had changed, including the fact that his best friend from back then was dead (it's his funeral that brings him back) and his first love interest is living under another name.
  • You Remind Me of X: Bobby gets told by a waitress how much he reminds her of his long-dead and barely remembered father. Sure enough, at one point when she's totally petrified she calls Bobby by his father's name.

Alternative Title(s): Hearts In Atlantis