Fair warning: Spoilers ahead.
The Waste Lands begins with signs that Roland Deschain, the gunslinger is slowly going mad. At the end of the previous book, he stopped the Pusher from shoving Jake (the boy who appears in the first book) in front of a car, thus preventing events from the first book from ever happening. This creates an interesting temporal paradox, in which the gunslinger begins to experience split realities — one in which Jake dies and one in which he never met Jake. As time goes on, his mind becomes more and more divided between these two realities.
Meanwhile, Jake in 1970s new york is experiencing a similar split — in one reality he lives his normal life and in another reality he traveled to the gunslinger’s world where he died in a mineshaft. Like Roland, Jake’s mind is being cleaved in two, unable to settle on one reality or the other.
It’s only when Jake, with the help of Eddie Dean, makes the journey back to Roland’s world (via one of the most terrifying houses ever) that the paradox is solved for both the gunslinger and the boy, saving each of them their sanity. It’s a moment of pure joy when the two are reunited.
That’s just one small bit of the novel — there are a lot of elements packed into this book — the giant, rotting, mechanical bear that was once a guardian; Eddie Dean’s grappling with the memory of his brother’s disdain and his own self worth; rescuing Jake; traveling in the path of the beam; reaching River Crossing, a small town full of elderly folks; finding a downed Nazi airplane; reaching the City, which bears its own horrors; and at last the introduction of Blaine the train.
Rereading The Waste Lands was a less satisfying experience than reading either of the first two books in the series. Part of this was that all of the elements put together made it feel like separate, distinct stories (all good on their own) had been put together into the same novel. In particular, the first half of the book about the drawing of Jake from our world felt like one story, while the travel through River Crossing and into the city felt like a separate story.
Another large part of my dissatisfaction was also based on how I read the book. I vividly remembered a few of the scenes from the novel (such as Jake’s going mad, his essay on “My Understanding of Truth,” his journey through the haunted mansion, and the climactic battle of riddles with Blaine the Train). My desire to reread these scenes caused me to rush through other portions of the book in anticipation of reaching those particular moments.
And in one case, my memories betrayed me altogether. Because one of the scenes I was most anticipating is not even in this book. King ends The Waste Lands with the cliffhanger of all cliffhangers — the story sets up the epic game of riddles with Blaine the Train, which will determine whether everyone lives or dies, but then ends just as the game is about to start. This is incredibly frustrating, even when I know I can go and grab book four whenever I want to read the conclusion.
For all the frustrations and minor disappointments, though, The Waste Lands has some great moments. For example, the Mansion, which Jake has to transverse in order to find a door to Roland’s world, is purely terrifying – an excellent example of how chilling King can be. “As soon as Jake saw the place, he understood two things first, that he had seen it before, in dreams so terrible his conscious mind would not let him remember them; second, that it was a place of death and murder and madness” (page 268).
Having the group meet the old people of River Crossing is also wonderful, although for completely different reasons. Although these people are aged and fading and, as such, slightly unsettling, they also provide a measure of human decency and kindness, a soothing reprieve in the face of horror and catastrophe. It also provides a space for us to see another side of Roland, who shows himself to be a skilled diplomat and honored member of a faded society.
It’s also interesting that we discover in this book that the ka-tet (a group of people bound together by fate) comprises primarily Eddie Dean, Susannah Dean, and Jake Chambers, and maybe the billy-bumbler Oye, as well. Although Roland has been central to the series from the beginning, he’s somewhat peripheral to the ka-tet. Roland even says as much, “I am not a full member of this ka-tet — possibly because I am not from your world.” It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
To close out, I just need to say that I want a billy-bumbler, which looks like “a combination raccoon and woodchuck, with a dash of dachshund thrown in for good measure.” A billy-bumbler makes friends with Jake and it can talk, parroting words at first, and later learning to count. The billy-bumbler sounds adorable, and like he would make a great friend.
I’m looking forward to reading book four, Wizard and Glass. I’ll get to sooth the wound from the painful cliffhanger, and will get to dive into Roland’s past — which I remember being the main element from book four, even thought I don’t remember many of the details.