Hearts in Atlantis

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For the film, see Hearts in Atlantis (film).
Hearts in Atlantis
First edition cover
Author Stephen King
Cover artist Phil Heffernan
Country United States
Language English
Genre Horror/Suspense/Drama
Publisher Scribner
Publication date
September 14, 1999
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 528
ISBN 978-0-684-85351-2

Hearts in Atlantis (1999) is a collection of two novellas and three short stories by Stephen King, all connected to one another by recurring characters and taking place in roughly chronological order.

The stories are about the baby boomer generation, specifically King's view that this generation (to which he belongs) failed to live up to its promise and ideals. Significantly, the opening epigraph of the collection is the Peter Fonda line from the end of Easy Rider: "We blew it." All of the stories are about baby boomers, and in all of them the members of that generation fail profoundly, or are paying the costs of some profound failure on their part.


Low Men in Yellow Coats[edit]

The first and longest part, Low Men in Yellow Coats, takes place in 1960 and revolves around a young boy, Bobby Garfield. He lives in Harwich, Connecticut with his self-centered mother, Liz, a widow. He really wants a bicycle, but Liz claims they do not have the money for a bike, despite her constant purchases of new clothing. For his eleventh birthday, Bobby's mother gives him a birthday card containing an adult library card. During this time, Bobby doesn't realize that his mother is being forced into having an affair with her boss, Don Biderman. Bobby spends his time with his two best friends, John "Sully" Sullivan and Carol Gerber.

An older gentleman named Ted Brautigan moves into the apartment on the 3rd floor, two floors above Bobby and his mother. It is obvious from the start that she doesn't like Ted, but Bobby does. Ted spends a lot of time discussing books with Bobby and gives him Lord of the Flies, which makes a huge impression on the boy. Liz claims to be worried that Ted might be sexually abusing Bobby, though in fact she feels guilty about neglecting her son. Bobby, understanding the situation but unable to articulate it, solves the problem by keeping the two apart.

Ted speaks to Bobby as one would speak to another adult, which makes a great impression on the boy. Ted offers Bobby a small amount of money to read him the paper daily, claiming his eyes are not what they used to be. Bobby witnesses Ted "blanking out" several times, and realizes Ted possesses psychic abilities, which he is able to pass on to others by coming into physical contact with them. Ted places his hands on Bobby's shoulders one morning and later on that day, Bobby wins a three card monte game at the beach because he was able to read the card dealer's mind. As the two grow closer, Ted confesses to Bobby that he is being stalked by "low men"—the can-toi, evil servants of King's recurring villain, The Crimson King. The signs of these men include "lost pet" signs and chalk drawings of stars and moons. Ted asks Bobby to keep an eye out for their signs and to let him know when they are near. It is revealed (although it is only understandable to readers of King's other works) that Ted is in some way connected to the Dark Tower. He is hiding in Bobby's town as a means of escaping the struggle revolving around it. Ted makes occasional references to both the tower and its beams, including the field of roses in which it is situated.

Bobby does begin to see the signs but does not say anything to Ted because he is afraid of losing his new friend. One day, he finds Carol lying in a grove of trees with a severely injured arm. She tells him that two bullies, Richie O'Meara and Willie Shearman, held her down while a third, Harry Doolin, beat her badly with a baseball bat. He carries her back to his apartment house, where Ted is waiting. They go inside the Garfields' apartment, and Ted has to cut off Carol's blouse to reset her arm, which turns out to be dislocated but not broken. Just as he manages to reset her arm, Liz, also looking badly injured, enters the apartment. It turns out that her employer and colleagues invited her to a supposed real estate seminar, which was an excuse for them to take advantage of her, something that Bobby dreamed of and Ted was able to describe to her due to his psychic abilities. Seeing Carol on Ted's lap, sporting a naked torso, immediately causes her to think Ted has been molesting Carol.

Eventually, Liz calms down, takes Carol home, and decides to sit in the local park to gather her thoughts. Bobby takes a long nap, and when he awakens he finds his mother asleep in her bed and Ted long gone. Bobby looks into his mother's purse and finds a "lost pet" poster appealing for information about a dog named Brautigan. He realizes his mother has telephoned the "can-toi" (low-men) and told them of Ted's whereabouts. Bobby eventually catches up to Ted, just as the "low men" are about to take him away. They want to take Bobby with them too, but Ted offers to work for them if they let Bobby go. They give Bobby the final choice and, faced with going with Ted, wherever that may be, or staying behind, Bobby chooses to stay.

The remainder of the story details, in brief, Bobby's adolescence. He beats up Harry Doolin with a baseball bat, and moves away from Harwich with his mother, and is twice put in a juvenile detention facility. When he arrives home after his second incarceration (at this point it is 1965), he receives a letter from Carol, with another envelope that she tells him is from Ted. Bobby opens the envelope and finds it is full of red rose petals, the ones which surround the Dark Tower, and he knows that somewhere Ted is free of the low men once again. He goes to his mother, who seems to have grown prematurely old, and embraces her; she cries because of the mess they have made of their lives, while he encourages her that there is hope for both of them.

Hearts in Atlantis[edit]

The next part of the book, Hearts in Atlantis, takes place in 1966 and is narrated by Peter Riley, who has just started at the University of Maine. He has been a good student before, but he is drawn to the interminable card game of Hearts that is going on in the common room in the all-male dormitory where he lives. This marathon of Hearts is initiated by Ronnie Malenfant, a young man with poor hygiene and a corrosive personality, but a whiz at the game; ironically, it is a game he plays with Riley that begins "the mad season." The games are frowned upon but allowed by the dorm's floor-proctor, David Dearborn, derogatorily called "Dearie" by the dorm boys.

The story explores how the university of the 1960s was an Atlantis, an imaginary kingdom isolated from the troubles of the world. The young men's student draft deferments are shielding them from serving in the Vietnam War. However, as more and more of the students become addicted to playing Hearts, their grades begin to suffer and they are putting themselves at risk of losing their deferment.

Peter Riley quickly falls behind in his studies, but even though he knows he might flunk out, he is unable to stop himself. Meanwhile, he meets Carol Gerber, Bobby Garfield's friend and childhood sweetheart from Low Men in Yellow Coats. Peter Riley falls in love with her, and with her help tries to cure himself of the addiction to Hearts. However, he is too self-involved and therefore unaware that Carol herself has become caught up in an escapist addiction of her own: student activism, her own attempt to pay tribute to her friendship with Bobby Garfield and a call to action to stop the war. Stokely "Stoke" Jones, a firebrand activist who cannot get around without crutches, introduces the "peace sign" to Peter and his friend, Stanley "Skip" Kirk, by displaying it on the back of his jacket. As Peter Riley and his friends' self-destructive addiction to Hearts continues, the Vietnam War grows closer, and signs of defiance appear in the hearts and minds of the students, even in Riley's room-mate, a shy pre-dent student struggling with doing what he feels is right and just or disappointing his parents.

One event catalyzes the resistance to the war, when a message spray-painted on a campus wall contains a (then-scandalous) suggestion to "FUCK JOHNSON" and a call for the U.S. to leave Vietnam. It is flanked by peace signs, which draw the attention towards Jones, who is apparently trying to wake up the students to the atrocity of the war. Riley and his compatriots in the dorm, which has been suffering a rash of student failures and withdrawals due to failing grades (by this time, he says, they were "majoring in Hearts") and Riley is taken by surprise when Carol announces she will be leaving school. She explains by telling him about Bobby, what he did for her, and that her decisions are forever influenced by what Bobby did for her. She and Riley make love for the first time in his car, and she leaves the next day, leaving a note describing why she did what she did, and that what happened the previous night was special for her...and a warning: "Get out of that card game." He reads the note, then breaks down; despite Carol's firm belief that "hearts don't break...they only bend," Peter wonders about the hearts of those who were still protected in innocence: "What about hearts in Atlantis?"

After Thanksgiving break (where Peter consciously joins the anti-war movement by drawing the peace sign on the back of his high school jacket), Peter tries to pull himself away from the Hearts games already starting by returning students, but is roped in by Ronnie, and loses himself in the games as he did before. As the games continue, a massive thunderstorm approaches the campus and soon freezing rain and hail descend. As Peter plays a game where he holds an apparently superior hand and intends to sink Ronnie once and for all, Jones is spotted on the commons by one of the players, and soon all the players watch as he tries to make his way across the rain-slickened walk. As they watch, then begin to poke fun at Jones' seemingly self-destructive charge, cheering him on, and suddenly Peter hears Carol in his head about the boys that beat her up...about how they were laughing as they did it. Even with this, he can't stop himself: "Man, we just couldn't stop laughing."

Then Stoke Jones loses his balance and falls, landing in the ice-cold water, and the groups of boys, still inexplicably laughing, head down to pull him out and take him to the infirmary, where he is held for observation. They come together and Skip talks to them about a plan he has.

Afterward, Skip and Peter head back to the dorm, wondering how it happened, how they had devolved into that savage laughter; when Peter mentions he dreamed about being the hero, Skip replies, "Who ever dreams about being part of the lynch mob?" When they return to the dorm, students are cleaning up and getting ready to play again. Ronnie taunts Peter, but Peter is cured of Hearts-mania and turns him down, resolving to salvage what is left of the term and hold on to his work-study scholarship.

Shortly afterward, a meeting is called by Dearborn, where the dean and a school official are present. Dearborn begins by leveling charges against Stoke Jones for the graffiti. However, Skip (who had expected this meeting) derails Dearborn's accusations by saying that he himself had been wearing the peace sign on his own clothing. Then Peter admits to wearing it on his jacket, and the other members of the dorm attest to wearing the same sign themselves and lie about wearing it for most of the semester. Skip ends by suggesting that since Jones is suffering from pneumonia, he would not be a credible source. The two school officials leave after the Dean tells them what Peter calls an epitaph of their age: "You fellows have disappointed me." Dearborn, disgraced, leaves the dorm and joins a fraternity, his credibility lost.

He and Skip pass, but barely (he wonders if his professors were lenient on him because they might feel responsible if he got drafted and subsequently killed in Vietnam) and then Peter receives a package from Carol. It contains a copy of Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and a newspaper article of a protest she participated in; it foreshadows the activist group she eventually gets involved in that results in terrorism with which she takes part in bloody demonstrations.

Ronnie flunks out and is subsequently drafted.

At the end of the novella, Peter reunites with Skip when they are adults. Skip has become a well-known if controversial artist, and they reminisce about how they had such great ideals, and how they failed to live up to those ideals. Skip consoles him with the fervent, "We TRIED."

Blind Willie[edit]

This short story was originally published in the October 1994 issue of Antaeus, and in 1997 was published as part of King's limited edition collection Six Stories. For its inclusion in Hearts in Atlantis, the story was heavily revised.

"Blind Willie" is about a Vietnam veteran's penance after the war. The main character in this story is Willie Shearman, and the story takes place over a single day in December 1983. At first we see him commuting from Connecticut to New York City like any normal businessman; we then discover that he elaborately disguises himself as a blind beggar. It is not an act, however, as he appears to have a somatoform disorder and becomes blind every afternoon at the time of day he was caught in a firefight and temporarily blinded. We also learn that he was in combat with John Sullivan and Ronnie Malenfant, and saved Sullivan's life; and that Willie keeps a scrapbook about Carol Gerber. He has never forgotten the day that she was beaten up by Harry Doolin while he and Richie O'Meara held her down and views his blindness as a form of penance.

Why We're in Vietnam[edit]

Why We're in Vietnam describes a reunion of two veterans, one being John Sullivan, at the funeral of a third and recounts an incident that almost escalated into a My Lai Massacre involving Ronnie Malenfant, a former student and player in the Hearts game in Hearts in Atlantis. Throughout the story, Sullivan sees an old Vietnamese woman, "mama-san", whom Ronnie killed during this incident. In the end Sullivan dies of an apparent heart attack during a traffic jam on the way home.

The title is a reference to Norman Mailer's Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), a novel about a hunting trip to Alaska narrated by a young man about to go fight in Vietnam.[citation needed]

"Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling"[edit]

In "Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling", Bobby Garfield returns to his hometown, after almost 40 years, to attend John Sullivan's funeral and finds closure to his relationships with Carol Gerber and Ted Brautigan.


Charles de Lint praised Hearts in Atlantis as "the Great American Baby Boomer Novel", saying that, "when he's at the top of his form, as he certainly is here, he [King] can be as provocative and inspired as <insert your favorite literary author here>."[1]

Film adaptation[edit]

Low Men in Yellow Coats and "Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling" formed the basis[2] of a 2001 film entitled Hearts in Atlantis, starring Anthony Hopkins as Ted Brautigan, Anton Yelchin as Bobby Garfield and Hope Davis as Liz Garfield. Major story elements are common to the film and the story, but many of the details were changed. In addition, all the references to the Dark Tower were removed and the final destinies of the characters, revealed in the latter stories of the original novel, are excluded. A further consequence of the changes is that the film's title is completely impenetrable to those unfamiliar with the novel, although a snatch of dialogue attempts to remedy this: Ted remarks that childhood's a lost city like Atlantis.

Connection to King's other works[edit]

Insofar as The Dark Tower series' overall plot is concerned, it is revealed in the seventh book that Ted is essential to the Crimson King's quest to break the beams that hold the Dark Tower up, which in turn, hold the universe together.

"Low men" also appear in King's novella, Ur, published for Amazon's Kindle in 2009.


See also[edit]