Made It Out Alive: My Own Love Affair With Christine by James Newman
“Come on, big guy. Let’s go for a ride. Let’s cruise . . . . ”
I’d be preaching to the choir if I said one of the most enduring traits of Stephen King’s fiction is the realism of his characters, and how we can all relate to them. Sure, most of us have never been trapped inside a broken-down Pinto while a rabid St. Bernard tries to get in and swallow us whole. We’ve never tried to assassinate a politician because a precognitive vision showed us his true nature. It’s probably safe to say that very few of us have crossed paths with a lonely widow who carries not only a dangerous obsession with a fictional character but also an ax and a blowtorch that she’s been itching to use for some time.
It’s the real world problems of King’s characters that ring true. It’s their crumbling marriages and their struggles to pay the bills on time. Their desires, their dreams and aspirations. We’ve met people like them. We are them.
While I never had it quite as bad as the doomed young man at the heart of King’s fourteenth novel, thank God, I could certainly relate to some of the things poor Arnie Cunningham suffered before he met his fate.
This is why Christine spoke to me more than any other title from King’s vast body of work. It’s why this book is one of only a handful of novels (by any author) that I re-read every few years, and why it nearly brings me to tears every time.
“’What is about this car?’”
“(Maybe) it’s because for the first time since I was eleven and started getting pimples, I’ve seen something even uglier than I am.’”
Poor Arnie. Again, I won’t tell you I had it as bad during my teenage years as Michael and Regina Cunningham’s only child. But I knew what it was like to be bullied. I knew what it was like to be “one of those poor sad sacks that go scurrying around the halls like criminals” (oh yes, King was one of us as well) in the hell that was high school.
Take, for example, the day a dude named Frank picked up a hot iron in Home Economics class and held it to the back of my hand (you’d think the last class a kid would walk out of with a hideous burn would be Home Ec — but I swear to God I’m not making this up). Or how about the constant “Russian sickles” a guy like me always had to watch out for in the hallways (this was in the ’80s when professional wrestling was in its prime, so of course the bullies couldn’t wait to try out every move they had seen on TV the previous weekend). There were one or two of us in every P.E. class who couldn’t do a pull-up or dribble a basketball to save his life; these were the kids who never turned their backs on anyone in the locker room because of the dreaded WEDGIE we’d heard all nerds were subjected to on a daily basis once you got to middle school. It’s a lot different these days, of course. Most schools have a zero-tolerance policy on bullying. But “back in my day” (as old-timers like the LeBay brothers might have said) tattling about the things a fellow student had done to you only made it worse. Like Buddy Repperton told Arnie that day after Mr. Casey confiscated his switchblade, “I’ll fix you . . . you’ll wish you were never fucking born.” Hell, I think a few of the teachers even held a thinly-veiled disgust for those of us who never quite fit in. I remember one day when I was in the eighth or ninth grade I had finished my work in Health class so I decided to pass the time by drawing from one of my favorite comic books. But then Mr. Wilson’s shadow darkened my desk, he ordered me to find something more constructive to do, and I vividly recall how he said the words “comic book” in a tone that suggested I was thumbing through photos of Barbie dolls instead of the latest issue of The Uncanny X-Men. This of course brought gales of laughter from my fellow students (keep in mind this was about twenty years before it was cool to be a geek, an era in which Coach Wilson’s tiny, ball-hugging gym shorts were considered the height of meathead fashion).
Then there was the simple fact that some of us knew we would never have a girlfriend. Folks like Arnie and me, with our Coke-bottle glasses and our social ineptitude, would never know what it was like to date one of those girls all the other guys wanted (I did have a serious girlfriend when I was sixteen, but my friends used to say she looked like AC/DC’s drummer with big boobs . . . they were right). We were OK with that. We had accepted our lot in life. It’s just the way it was, and there wasn’t any changing it.
That’s why I’ve always felt like I know Arnie Cunningham. I know him well.
Imagine how happy I was for him when he finally got lucky.
Too bad that, by the time it happened for poor Arnie, there was another girl in his life who did not like to share.
“When we were little kids we had scooters and then bikes, and I named mine but Arnie (said) names were for dogs and cats and guppies . . . now he was calling that Plymouth Christine, and, what was somehow worse, it was always ‘her’ and ‘she’ instead of ‘it’.
I didn’t like it, and I didn’t know why.”
My first car was a 1976 AMC Hornet that a family friend sold my father for something like a hundred bucks. While it was in much better shape than the ‘58 Plymouth Fury that sat like a mouldering corpse on Roland D. Lebay’s front lawn the first time Arnie spotted her, it wasn’t anything I was proud of. It was the color of rust, had a body shaped like a giant, stretched-out turd, and — until I installed one of those crappy Audiobox cassette players and a pair of tinny-sounding speakers — it offered nothing as far as my love of music was concerned other than an ancient AM radio in the dash. I knew there wasn’t anything remotely “cool” about my first car. For someone who preferred to stay “under the radar” as much as possible lest some bully turn his sights in my direction, I knew every time my Hornet rolled into the parking lot of West Henderson High School I might as well have installed a blinking sign on the hood that read “LOSER INSIDE: FEEL FREE TO POINT AND LAUGH!”
But the Hornet was mine. It made me feel like I fit in, if only a little. My car belonged to me and only me, and for the ride to school and back every day it was my cocoon sheltering me from a hateful world. I listened to my heavy metal cassettes as loud as that shitty stereo system would allow and I felt as if I was in control of something. Something that wouldn’t judge me, but would treat me halfway decent as long as I did the same for it.
I knew how Arnie felt when Christine stole his heart and nobody else in the world understood why he loved her so. It was a lot like how I felt about that ugly-as-hell, rust-colored AMC Hornet that I never bothered giving a name.
These days, all is well.
There was no permanent scarring from that long-ago encounter with Frank’s hot iron. I’ve lived nearly half a century without having to find out what a WEDGIE feels like. Comic books are so cool these days even the hot chicks read them . . . and speaking of hot chicks, I’m proud to report that I did land a gorgeous woman who loves me as much as Leigh Cabot loved Arnie Cunningham before it all went bad.
Each time I revisit Arnie’s story, though, I remember that I was once like him.
Even if my AMC Hornet never stole my soul and turned the oafs who tormented me into roadkill . . . I’ve been there.
Unlike poor Arnie, I made it out alive.
The complete list of the books we’ll be reading can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.
James Newman is the author of the novels MIDNIGHT RAIN, THE WICKED, ANIMOSITY, and UGLY AS SIN. He has several titles on the way soon from Cemetery Dance Publications, including DOG DAYS O’ SUMMER, a short novel co-written with Mark Allan Gunnells. James lives in North Carolina with his wife, Glenda, and their two sons (they have a toddler and a teenager… and you think YOU know “horror”?). He invites readers to visit him online at www.james-newman.com