The Dark Tower Volume II: The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King (1987) 400 p.

In my review of the first volume in the Dark Tower series, I commented that, while it was a good book, it was somewhat sparse and very obviously a foundation for a greater story to come. I don’t think it’s such a hot idea to start your 22-year magnum opus heptalogy (yeah, I went there) with a weak book, but fortunately, The Drawing of the Three makes up for what The Gunslinger lacked.

Having found himself on the shore of a turgid grey sea, tasked by the man in black with “the drawing of the three,” Roland is attacked by a lobster-like monstrosity that severs two of his fingers and leaves him with an infected wound that will soon kill him. Dragging himself along the beach with the last of his strength, Roland comes to a doorway standing alone on the sand – a doorway into another world.

Entering the doorway, Roland finds himself inside the mind of an inhabitant of that world, a man named Eddie Dean, who is sitting on a plane from Nassau to New York with two bags of cocaine strapped to his armpits.

The subsequent story is an example of Stephen King at his best, as Roland attempts to bring food and medicine back from our world to his, and to prevent Eddie from being arrested at customs. The point of view jumps from Eddie to Roland to a flight attendent to the pilot to customs officers and more besides, and yet never throws off the pacing or flow. One of King’s finest talents as a writer is to look inside his characters’ heads, to establish their motivations and make their behaviour and reactions perfectly understandable. Consider this scene, where Eddie has locked himself in the plane’s toilet and the flight crew knows damn well he’s smuggling cocaine:

Deere, the co-pilot, suggested Captain McDonald ought to lay off pounding on the door when McDonald, in his frustration at 3A’s lack of a response, began to do so.
“Where’s he going to go?” Deere asked. “What’s he going to do? Flush himself down the john? He’s too big.”
“But if he’s carrying-” McDonald began.
Deere, who had himself used cocaine on more than a few occasions, said: “If he’s carrying, he’s carrying heavy. He can’t get rid of it.”
“Turn off the water,” McDonald snapped suddenly.
“Already have,” the navigator (who had also tooted more than his flute on occasion) said. “But I don’t think it matters. You can dissolve what goes into the holding tanks but you can’t make it not there.” They were clustered around the bathroom door, with its OCCUPIED sign glowing jeerily, all of them speaking in low tones. “The DEA guys drain it, draw off a sample, and the guy’s hung.”
“He could always say someone came in before him and dumped it,” McDonald replied. His voice was gaining a raw edge… something was not right about this one. Something inside of him kept screaming Fast one! Fast one! as if the fellow from 3A were a riverboat gambler with palmed aces he was all ready to play.

McDonald – who had never put anything stronger than aspirin into his system in his entire life and then only rarely – turned to Deere. His lips were pressed together in a thin white line like a scar.

With only three throwaway lines nestled amongst the narrative, King establishes exactly why the captain is so determined to apprehend Eddie, without disrupting the flow at all. It adds a lot to the story, and proves that King can write quite well when he wants to.

After the “drawing” (recruitment) of Eddie Dean, we follow the formulaic drawing of the other two. All three of them are natives of New York City in various different periods of time, and the vast majority of the book is set there, with only brief interludes on the long, bleak beach in Roland’s world. The second recruit is probably the low point of the book; I found her particular quirk to be somewhat annoying. The third, however, brings us back to the excellent storytelling of Eddie Dean’s segment, with Roland going on a gunslinging shootout across New York City in his final desperate quest for antibiotics.

The strange thing is that, while this book is much better than The Gunslinger, it too is clearly a set-up for a greater story to come. The Gunslinger gave us the hero and the quest; The Drawing of the Three gives us his posse. While I enjoyed this book a lot, I find myself wondering whether Volume III will advance the quest and give us more of Roland’s world, or busy itself with yet more set-up. Once again, King himself acknowledges this in the afterword: “This longer second volume still leaves many questions unanswered and the story’s climax far in the future, but I feel that it is a much more complete volume than the first… and the Dark Tower draws closer.”

Unfortunately, we’re in early ’90s territory now, so King’s inevitable decline in quality also draws closer…