I remembered Cujo only from the ’80s movie, which I didn’t see, but which people didn’t seem to like very much. But as I read I was surprised to learn it is in fact my absolutely favorite Stephen King book—not only that, but one of my favorite novels, period.
It’s the story of a dog, which I expected going into the thing. I thought I was just going to read about a dog that goes crazy and eats a lot of people. We get a fair amount of that, but what I didn’t know is that it’s also a story of two families. This middle-class family from “away,” as they say in Maine—a husband and wife with an only child, a son—and then a local Maine family, a mirror of them, the Cambers. They’re generations-born Mainers who are subsistence-living on the auto-mechanic operation the father, Joe Camber, is running out of his home farm.
Joe Camber is an abusive husband, and he’s an abusive father. Not physically, so much. There is that, but he’s emotionally withholding and hard. Brett, his son, who’s I think 8 or 9 years old, wants out, because on some level he knows that his father hurts his mom and him, both inadvertently and advertently.
One passage in particular opened up to me what a talented, almost necromancer King is about getting into the minds of his characters—not only people from different worlds and of different genders, but of different ages. It’s a scene where the mom finally convinces Joe Camber to let her take Brett, the son, to Portland, Maine’s largest city, to visit her sister. There’s a lot of emotional manipulation where the father, Joe Camber, is almost not going to allow it to happen out of sheer spite. But then he does, and as he’s saying goodbye, there’s a surprising moment where Joe Camber asks his son for a kiss:
“Probably you ain’t got a kiss to give your old man.”
“I guess I do, Daddy,” Brett said. He hugged his father tight and kissed his stubbly cheek, smelling sour sweat and a phantom of last night’s vodka. He was surprised and overwhelmed by his love for his father, a feeling that sometimes still came, always when it was least expected (but less and less often over the last two or three years, something his mother did not know and would not have believed if told). It was a love that had nothing to do with Joe Camber’s day-to-day behavior toward him or his mother; it was a brute, biological thing that he would never be free of, a phenomenon with many illusory referents of the sort which haunt for a lifetime: the smell of cigarette smoke, the look of a double-edged razor reflected in a mirror, pants hung over a chair, certain curse words.
I remember bursting into tears as I read this. It’s almost the only moment of actual affection that he shows for his son, and it’s also a demand for affection. And when he says, I don’t suppose you have a kiss for your old man, it’s a very quiet admission that he knows he doesn’t deserve it. But the passage makes this amazing pivot: At the same time we see Camber’s love for Brett for the first time, we also come to understand that in this moment Brett no longer loves his father. Any feeling of connection he does have is a “brute, biological thing,” tied up in the things he most associates with this dad, the cursing and cigarette smoke that will serve as haunting reminders forever.