By STEPHEN KING (Signet; 1996)
A Stephen King tale that was initially issued in what back in the nineties seemed a unique, and possibly even foolhardy, manner: as a six part serial, with one mini-book appearing each month from March to August of 1996. Nowadays (in the wake of John Saul’s BLACKSTONE CHRONICLES, the VAMPIRE HUNTER D saga and quite a few other serialized accounts) the format no longer seems innovative, which makes me wonder why THE GREEN MILE is currently available only in single novel form.
The fact is this tale, one of King’s more fanciful and expansive efforts, works best in multi-book format. The narrative, which takes the form of recollections by an ex-prison guard of his tenure as chaplain of some death row inmates back in the 1930s, is a highly episodic, flashback-packed ramble that takes its sweet time to work itself out.
That fact isn’t too bothersome in the serialized format, seeing as how each mini-novel has its own point of focus. Those points are denoted by the titles: THE TWO DEAD GIRLS, about a giant simpleton stuck on death row for allegedly raping and murdering two young girls; THE MOUSE ON THE MILE, about a miraculous trick-playing mouse that livens things up on the “Green Mile” (so named because the floor of this particular death row is painted green); COFFEY’S HANDS, in which we learn that Frank Coffee, the condemned simpleton, has supernatural healing powers; THE BAD DEATH OF EDUARD DELACROIX, referring to the horrific demise of a prisoner at the hands of a petty and sadistic guard; NIGHT JOURNEY, wherein Coffee’s healing powers are further utilized; and COFFEY ON THE MILE, in which Coffey and the protagonist meet their respective fates.
The first five mini-novels last around 90 pages while part six runs over 130. Each includes a terrific assortment of well delineated characters, with the near-inhumanly vile Percy Wetmore (the aforementioned petty guard) being an undoubted standout. So too William “Wild Bill” Wharton, the mile’s most out-of-control denizen, and Mr. Coffey, who ranks as one of King’s most endearing creations; Coffey’s untimely demise, unveiled in COFFEY ON THE MILE, is among the most moving passages King has ever written. The narrator is also quite memorable in his way, with a stern and even puritanical air that fits the milieu, and renders his major affliction, a urinary tract infection, that much more humiliating and unexpected.
The serialized format also allows for a multitude of the type of telling details King does especially well, but which wouldn’t work nearly as well in a standalone novel (and which render the 1999 film adaptation an entertaining but excessively long-winded slog). They include the periodic rehearsals the protagonist and his cohorts hold before executions, the alternately funny and horrific guard-inmate interactions, and the narrator’s none-too-pleasant descriptions of his later years in a nursing home, a sobering prediction of the fate awaiting many of the rest of us.