BOOK REVIEW: The Green Mile by Stephen King

Today I finished a Stephen King classic: The Green Mile. I was ugly crying by the end, you know, delivering a full “Kim K sob” moment to the audience of my unimpressed teenage sister. I expected greatness, naturally. However, I hadn’t expected that I would be so immersed and emotionally involved, especially having seen the film a number of times. It turns out that great stories continue to hold a great power over their readers, no matter how many times they’ve read those pages or watched those films.

Plot:

So, what’s the story?

Protagonist Paul Edgecombe is an elderly man living in a residential home. He spends his mornings going for mysterious walks into the woods, his days writing solitarily in the sunroom and his insomnia-riddled nights watching TV in the “resource center”. The subject of his writing is his earlier years, which were spent serving as a supervisory prison guard on Block E of Cold Mountain Penitentiary death row. This block is also known as “The Green Mile”, on account of the fact that the block features a green strip that leads directly from the bars of the jail cells all the way through to the room that hosts the electric chair, nicknamed Ol’ Sparky.

The main year of interest in his memoirs is 1932: the year that saw Block E populated by the likes of Delacroix, John Coffey and Wild Bill. Delacroix is a French-speaking, balding arsonist, rapist and murderer. Wild Bill is a sociopathic wild card and John Coffey, like the drink only not spelled the same, is a gentle-mannered giant who was found with the bodies of two bloodied and desecrated young girls in his arms.

A series of strange events take place in 1932. There’s the pernicious UTI festering in Edgecombe’s loins, a prison guard with a penchant for meanness, mice miraculously resurrected from almost-death and eventful executions that have the room smelling of burned flesh for the rest of time. 1932: this was a year that irrevocably changed Edgecombe’s life. Above all, 1932 was the year that cemented the legacy of John Coffey, the mysteriously vacant and supernatural inmate who changed the lives of all those around him.

Things I like about the novel:

  • I really enjoyed the format in which the novel is written. There’s obviously two timelines: Edgecombe’s present and the events of 1932. Both seamlessly weave in and out of each other, with Edgecombe slowly becoming more saturated in his memories as the novel goes on. Apparently, the novel was initially released in small paperback sections and then merged together into one due to demand from King’s faithful readers. This could explain the slight repetition among chapters, but even then, this never seemed to disrupt the flow of the narrative. Rather, it added a little quirk to Edgecombe’s account as he was flitting between present and past.
  • Another thing I loved was how there were whole chunks of narration, speech and imagery that came alive as I read and I realised that the movie had utilised a lot of the written material, with only a few deviations along the way. The movie, released in 1999, was ridiculously faithful to the book. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but picture the characters as they had been cast. Perhaps the greatest of all casting choices was that of John Coffey: Michael Clarke Duncan’s performance gained him a series of nominations for prestigious awards such as an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture. While reading, it honestly felt as if King had written the entire part with only Duncan in mind.
  • Once again, King has worked his magic with the supporting cast so that even the most minor of the characters are fleshed out with such detail that they become as integral to the narrative as the core protagonists themselves. Nobody’s neglected, even Ol’ Sparky, Mr Jingles and Toot-Toot are given their time to shine and readers can’t help but regard them with as much affection and attention as the big wigs like Brutal, Harry and Dean.

Goodreads rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

What Unemployment Taught Me About “Failure and Success”

On this day: unemployed me helped to build a bar in the back garden with my dad. The stereotype that unemployed folk are unproductive is totally and utterly wrong.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been the busy-body, workaholic, type-A individual. My life has comprised of working very hard towards a focused goal, accomplishing that goal with blood, sweat and tears, and then swiftly moving onto the next big objective in line. It has always felt alien to “rest” and has been a legitimate struggle to find ways to relax, as it seems my mind has always been more adept with chaos and, in contrast, struggled with stillness.

As you can imagine for a person with my tendencies, a period of unemployment earlier this year, for two whole months, could have been more than enough to send me spiralling. However, I actually found this quiet time for reflection to be very powerful. This was because I was emancipated from a job that was, quite frankly, completely draining me dry. After more than a year of “What’s wrong with me? Why aren’t I good enough?”, I was finally free.

Of course I had the standard anxieties about the prospect of finding a new job and financial security, but first and foremost, I was relieved. I was no longer bound to a job that was making me, and consequently my loved ones, deeply unhappy. My life suddenly had perspective again: there’s so much more to living than being chained to a desk chair for 9 hours a day! There’s so many things I used to enjoy before this job took over every brain cell! I am so much more than just an employee! I felt like an absolute fool for allowing the drama of that employment spell to sink me so considerably for such a long time.

I don’t think I’d have felt this sense of clarity and peace without the context of my previous illness. Up till a few years ago in 2019 when I hit ultimate burnout/the darkest depression/the fiery pits of hell, AKA literally not having the physical or emotional capacity to keep on carrying on, I thought I’d be that person who just kept going forever and ever. I had never really imagined myself succumbing to full physical sickness due to mental exertion. However, when that burnout period came along, aspects of my life changed irrevocably and I have since learned a lot about my unhealthy coping mechanisms and attitudes towards failure/success.

I definitely feel the outside pressures of wanting to make my family proud and wanting to be perceived by society in a successful light, but the majority of my pressure to succeed comes from within and is entirely irrational. I’d always envisioned being unemployed as a sign of personal failure. I’d always considered overworking to be a sign of professionalism and necessity. I genuinely once thought that taking time to “do nothing” was a lazy cop-out for people without stamina. How criminally wrong I was.

This is evidenced by the fact that I stayed for so long in a working situation that made me so stressed, anxious and depleted. Despite absolutely giving my all, working endless overtime, taking on extra responsibilities and trying to pick myself up after being repeatedly knocked, I just couldn’t make my previous role work for me. Even though I knew I was regressing mentally and physically due to my efforts, I couldn’t throw the towel in because I was scared that it would amount to failure. The official nail in the coffin: “I’ve failed myself. I’ve failed the company. I’ve failed my colleagues. I’ve failed my family”.

In reality: I absolutely bloody did not.

It seems that I’ve been hardwired to push myself to absolute exertion for the majority of my life and, as a result, I’ve suffered massively. On a personal level, I’ve sacrificed a lot of precious time with family and friends. On a professional level, I’ve managed to self-sabotage opportunities for advancement due to being inundated with other responsibilities after overloading myself with absolutely everything else possible.

Part of me is ashamed by the fact that it’s taken me this long to redefine my ideas of success and failure, yet overall, I’m glad I’ve learned it in the first place. Sometimes I look at people far older than me and wonder whether, despite all the letters after their names, certificates on the walls and zeroes before the dot on their salaries, they’re actually content. Because when it comes down to it, I think that would be the ultimate success story now to 26-year-old me.

Summary: Life isn’t linear and neither is progress. Losing a job or a relationship or a status does not amount to failure. Wads of mullah do not amount to success. Working yourself to the bone in the hopes that you’ll please everybody will not lead to anything but incredibly bad and sad times. Life is precarious and oh so short. Don’t waste it always looking ahead to what you want to be and what you want to have and focus instead, at least sometimes, on the person you’ve already become and the things you’ve already accomplished.