Book Review of Stephen King’s ‘The Outsider’: Aptly Titled


Stephen King’s latest horror work, The Outsider (Scribner, due May 22), is a departure from his oeuvre in several ways, notably in its devotion to today’s popular police procedural dramas. For awhile, King’s 561-page 60th novel is King-sized CSI.

As such, it focuses on analyzing two hellish crimes in which the obvious suspect somehow was in two places at the same time — courtesy of a supernatural being whose pursuit by good-guy lawmen detours the book’s second half into a more eventful cat-and-mouse chase.

The Outsider also is a departure because it’s largely set in Texas and Oklahoma — not exactly King country, unless you count 11/22/63.

King knows Maine, but he doesn’t know Texas, where I’ve lived most of my life (and even in Oklahoma for nearly five years). In fact, I can say with vehement certainty that Stephen don’t know Jack when it comes to either state — nor do his editors, apparently.

Stephen, I love you, but this mischaracterization of the Lone State State (which is routine in all media, with everyone in Texas’ increasingly urban melting pot wearing cowboy hats and string ties) is embarrassingly bad. In fact, King’s Texas seems to be informed by old John Wayne movies set in Texas but shot in Utah.

How so? King seems to think the Austin area is in West Texas. Check the map. It’s in what’s known as Central Texas, and in a state this big, that’s a big difference.

As for the true West Texas, the state’s most far-west city, El Paso (closer to LA than cross-state Texarkana — I kid you not), is said to be in South Texas. Uh, no. That would be Brownsville or McAllen, an eternity away. Besides, if El Paso isn’t West Texas, what is?

A rural area near Austin also is said to be “desolate country” with dry gulches, coyotes and rattlesnakes. That might be true in the arid regions of actual West Texas, but Austin is in the verdant Texas Hill Country, so huh?

King also characterizes Austin with a reference to intolerant Bible-thumpers. Right, Austin — Texas’ most liberal city, whose official motto is “Keep Austin Weird.”

Being a Maine resident, King must think of temps in the 50s as a heat wave. But sorry, Central Texas in late July doesn’t get down to the nippy 50s at night, then scorch up to the 70s, boding a really hot day ahead. Heck, even in coastal Houston where I live it’s been in the mid-90s in mid-May.

Oh, and an “Oklahoma Thunder” NBA team does not exist. That would be the Oklahoma City Thunder. You think Knicks fans would be cool with reversing the mistake and claiming their team is the New York City Knicks?

I could go on — the sloppy regionalism is that bad — but it’s time to resume assessing the rest of the book, whose characters are vivid and relatable and whose narrative has King’s reliably giddy impetus. The Outsider is definitely a page-turner.

I also appreciated how King overlapped this Texas-Oklahoma yarn with the Ohio world of the Bill Hodges trilogy, as those books’ Holly Gibney joins intrepid Okie law officers in a Texas trackdown of the real killer in nightmarish child slayings pinned on innocent men.

I’ll largely leave the bizarre nature of the real killer for future readers to find out. But suffice it to say that he — or it — is creepy as hell.

Still, it’s a jarring segue when the book suddenly shifts from methodical investigations of real-world crimes to a dead-serious hunt for a freaky boogeyman out of old Mexican wrestler movies.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Stephen King’s work. He is, in fact, my favorite author. But he’s not infallible. In fact, if anyone is an “outsider” in this book, it’s an author trying to get a handle on a region he clearly doesn’t know.

—  Bruce Westbrook




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