Constant Readers Are Never Constant
This week’s pages have taken us on our first trip to New York, then away from the Waystation and out of the desert, and finally under the mountains. And we all know what happens under the mountains. We have been around this wheel before, but unlike Roland we remember what’s coming, and unlike Jake with his ominous intuitions, we know every detail of what awaits them further down the tracks. Worse, we know their fate cannot be altered or avoided. Until Sai King decides to bless us with the next verse in the Song of Gan, what’s written is written and it’s not going to change.
So why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we constantly return to this story when we know it’s going to break our hearts? Why do we reread our favorite novels—not just this series, but any book that grips our spirit—why rewatch our favorite TV shows and movies when we know how they end? Why do people listen to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat, knowing that the recording will always be the same?
The answer is simple: the art hasn’t changed, but the audience has. Each time we are told a story, even if it’s a story we’ve heard a thousand times before, we are always different people than the last time we heard it. Just like Roland, we start each trip to the Tower with our own personal Horn of Eld. It might not be a big change, you might not even notice it in yourself, but it’s there. The type is set in our sacred text, but humans evolve.
Personally, this particular reread of the series comes on the heels of a major life event, likely most significant change I’ll ever experience. Back in May I became a father.
Every other time I’ve read these books, when it came to Roland and Jake’s father-son dynamic, I always related to the son character. But since becoming a father, suddenly I find myself viewing their relationship from the perspective of a dad. Even though the words haven’t changed, the meaning I derive from them has.
The Faces of Their Fathers
Previously, when I read the story through Jake’s eyes, I saw his father (Elmer his name turns out to be), as a juxtaposition of Roland. Where Elmer has “abdicated and left [Jake] to Mrs. Greta Shaw” (p. 92), Roland takes the boy under his wing, teaching and protecting him. It seemed like an obvious contrast to me before I had children, and I still think it’s valid analysis. But now I see this portion of the book very differently.
I no longer draw a comparison between Jake’s father and Roland, his new father figure. Now the two fathers I find myself comparing are Elmer and Steven. To me, this used to be the story of a boy replacing his shitty dad with a fantasy dad. But now, I see the story of a man who ends up essentially adopting a boy, and figure out how to be a father.
Unfortunately his only model for fatherhood is his own father, Steven. On the surface Steven Deschain couldn’t be more different than Elmer Chambers, but when you look past the aesthetics their respective worlds, there are fewer differences between the two mean than you might think. They’re not foils, they are echoes of each other (twinners may it do ya).
What do we know about Elmer? In chapter 4.iii, Jake’s father is described as the head (or Dinh) of a TV network; we know he’s a heavy smoker at a whopping “four packs of cigarettes a day”; We know he’s “not averse to to the occasional shot of the old Coca-Cola”; We know that he is not very present in Jake’s life; we know that “his father makes a great deal of money because he is a “master of ‘the kill.’” (p. 93)
And what do we know of Steven Deschain? We know he is a gunslinger, a true master of the kill himself, and also wealthy and powerful because of that title. And while we don’t see Steven smoke or snort anything, we’ve been watching Roland suck down cigarettes and he’s about to trip on Mescaline (and not for the first time). We come to understand that Roland was trained from birth to become a replica of his father (an idea reflected in Roland’s metaphor of a boy trying on his dad’s pants). If Roland smokes cigarettes and dabbles in hard drugs, I think it’s fair to assume that he learned this behavior from his father.
If he didn’t learn it from Steven, he learned it from Cort or Vannay, the teachers that Steven has charged with educating his son, just as Elmer has tasked a handful of “professional people” with raising Jake (p. 92). The teachers at the Piper School are just like Roland’s teachers. They might be less militaristic and far more forgiving, but they are just as conformist, and just as tradition-bound.
Later we learn that Elmer owns a gun, and along with all the other similarities between him and Steven, there’s a case to be made that Elmer is a kind of gunslinger in his own right, or mayhaps a would-be gunslinger who has been sent west (A Big Capitalist Hunter you might say).
So despite the vast differences in the worlds they come from, these two men are actually not so different, and they are both somewhat lacking in the fatherhood department. This doesn’t leave Roland with many positive examples to inform his own fathering style. He doesn’t know any way to care for Jake other than the ways his own father cared for him. He teaches Jake the same lessons his father had drilled into him when he was a kid, even unconsciously passing down his little campfire rhyme.
Roland has been given a chance to save this boy from a horrible father, but he ends up following the same blueprint he inherited from his own. If Roland truly wants to change and escape Ka’s crushing wheel, breaking this generational cycle of neglect and abuse might be a good place to start.
What if remembering the face of your father isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Mayhaps some father’s faces are worth forgetting.