Mr. Chatterbox

By staff April 1, 2008

It’s not often that a novelist as good as Stephen King gets his claws into Sarasota. In fact, it hasn’t happened since John D. MacDonald wrote Condominium back in 1977. But King’s new book, Duma Key, is so crammed with local lore and dark Sarasota themes that it goes right to the top of our town’s essential reading list.

MacDonald skewered Sarasota with a precise and not very flattering analysis of our greed and general all-around stupidity. Builders cut costs and people ignore hurricanes. With King the enemy is different. It’s not human nature, it’s what’s out there just below the placid surface of the Gulf. His territory is Sarasota’s supernatural life. It’s like he’s been eavesdropping on us, figuring out all our secret terrors, including some I didn’t have until I read the book.

The plot: Edgar Freemantle, a middle-aged contractor from St. Paul, Minn., very successful and rich, suffers a terrible accident in which his skull is crushed and his right arm is amputated. Bitter and angry, he rents a house sight unseen on Duma Key (read Casey Key) and takes up painting. He turns out to be astonishingly good and prolific, but he can’t explain where his bizarre, surrealistic images are coming from—or why they have a tendency to come true.

He meets his neighbor and landlady, an elderly eccentric whose family originally settled the key. There was a great tragedy in her youth; her two sisters were drowned in the Gulf. As Edgar’s paintings get more and more intense, it becomes clear that horrible spirits involving dead children (and yes, even real-life murder victim Carlie Brucia puts in an appearance) are lurking on the key, especially in the jungle at the south end where nobody ever goes.

Now, this being a Stephen King novel, I’m sure you can figure out where all this is going. So I’ll shift instead to King’s curious relationship with Sarasota. He started coming down here after his own terrible accident, in which a careless driver hit him while he was walking near his house in Maine. He and his wife, Tabitha, originally rented on Longboat, which they liked, but there was one big problem—he couldn’t walk his dogs on the beach.

I’ve heard several different versions of how he acquired his house on Casey. One is that he rang the doorbell and made the owners an offer they couldn’t refuse. Another is that he found out about it the day before it came on the market, and then made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. This was in 2001, and the nearly $9 million he paid for it remained a record for years.

He certainly got the perfect house for Stephen King. It’s the northernmost one on the key and well-buffered by that scruffy jungle that grew up when Midnight Pass closed. You can see here the picture I took. Your reaction is probably, “Gee, what a lousy picture,” but that’s sort of my point—it’s about as isolated and private as you can get around here, particularly for property right on the beach.

I find it rather touching just how much King likes where he lives; in fact, the Chamber of Commerce may be interested in getting reprint rights to a comment Edgar makes early in the book:

“Ilse looked at me solemnly. ‘Is this the most beautiful place on earth, Dad?’

“No, but you’re young and I can’t blame you for thinking it might be. It’s number four on the Most Beautiful list, actually, but the top three are places nobody can spell...Number one, Machu Picchu. Number two, Marrakech. Number three, Petroglyph National Monument. Then, at number four, Duma Key, just off the west coast of Florida.”

Thank you, thank you.

Edgar spends most of his time on the key, but when he does come into town, he goes to the places we all do: Morton’s, Zoria, Ophelia’s, the Ringling Museum, the mall, Sarasota Memorial, Palm Avenue. He spends an inordinate amount of time glued to SNN. (General manager Linda Desmerais will be glad to know that he keeps it on all the time.) Every day he is thankful for the weather (of course, he’s here in the winter).

And somehow, he seems to be paying attention to everything he hears. Just like Stephen King. Am I the only one who sees Syd Solomon in all of this? Syd passed away several years ago, but back in his heyday (the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s) he was Sarasota’s most famous artist, with his work in top museums, like MoMA in New York. He and his wife, Annie, had architect Gene Leedy build them a dramatic modern house right on the beach at the south end of Siesta, a house that was slowly consumed by the Gulf as Syd slid into the darkness of Alzheimer’s disease.

King has said that the story of the Solomon house triggered his story. But I wonder—did Syd’s own personal story also contribute? Did King picture the old artist, his artistic vision coming and going, trapped in his studio overlooking the vastness of the Gulf? (Where, as King points out, night doesn’t fall. It rises, out of the Gulf.)

And what are we to make of Joan Altabe? In the book there is an art critic, a woman of a certain age, a Sarasota old-timer with unprecedented power and authority. Her name is Mary Ire, and I’m sorry, but your mind goes immediately to Joan Altabe. (Now, if you’re new in town, allow me to explain that Joan Altabe was the art critic for the Herald-Tribune until they let her go several years ago for being too controversial.)

I kept looking for similarities between Joan and Mary, trying to tie them together. In many respects they weren’t all that similar. True, Mary had an ancient Mercedes and Joan an ancient Cadillac. But Joan was an earnest intellectual, Mary an old drunk. Still, they both earned the fear and respect of the town. Both were incorruptible and knew what they were talking about, and both were outspoken troublemakers. But in their essence they didn’t seem the same, so I was willing to give Mr. King the benefit of the doubt—in other words, he dreamt up Mary Ire entirely on his own.

That is, until the part about Tampa. The fictional Mary Ire, though she works in Sarasota, lives in a loft-like apartment on Davis Island in Tampa. A crucial scene takes place there. Well, it seems that for several years Joan lived in Tampa. In a loft in Channelside, right next to Davis Island. Now, nobody knows this. Oh, Joan’s friends do, of course, but it has never been in the paper, has never figured in anything written about Joan, and is not common knowledge.

What’s going on here? I called Joan and she swore she had never met Stephen King and had never communicated with him in any form. So I can think of only three possibilities. One: Stephen King is paying very close attention to what’s going on in Sarasota; two: Stephen King is unnaturally obsessed with Joan and is stalking her; three: Stephen King is in some way attuned to the supernatural underworld, where the things he imagines turn out to be true.

Just like the guy in the book.

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