Last week we got to see some of the people who worked on Project Blue. This week we meet my least favorite character, Larry Underwood.
In any case, one of the themes I’ve noticed in Stephen King novels is that there is a protagonist who is either a writer, an alcoholic, a drug user, or all of the above. (I think King himself struggled with alcohol, so you could debate whether or not these characters are author inserts.) In The Stand, that’s Larry Underwood.
As we meet Larry Underwood, he is parking his car in the parking lot of his mother’s apartment complex. He watches a rat eating a poor dead cat, and there’s a few paragraphs about New York’s rat population, New York in general as compared to Southern California, and New York rain.
One thing about Stephen King’s books: there are a lot of things that could be cut without losing anything. I’m actually cutting out a lot of stuff because it’s just not relevant.
Larry Underwood thinks about going to his mother’s apartment.
No, he would just sit here and nod off, trusting to the last residue of reds in his system to wake him up around 7. Then he would go see if his mother still lived here. Maybe it would best if she was gone….maybe then he would just check into the Biltmore, sleep for 3 days, and then head back into the golden west.
According to google, reds are some kind of barbiturate. I’m not a pharmacist, but I’m pretty sure barbiturates aren’t exactly known for keeping people awake.
Larry sits in his car, thinking about his life for the past 10 months. I’ll summarize the paragraphs for you. Basically, Larry Underwood is a singer (songwriter?) trying to make it in LA. I don’t really understand all the details. What does it mean to “cut a demo?” In any case, Larry gets suddenly famous for a song, “Baby can you dig your man?” This is apparently “N—- music,” even though Larry himself is white.
Larry doesn’t handle the sudden wealth well. He rents a beach house and starts a party that lasts for at least two weeks. He does lots of coke, tequila, and “reds.” 6 days ago, however, Wayne Stukey, someone who works at the recording studio, took Larry for a walk.
It had only been 9am, but the stereo was on, both TVs, and it sounded like there was an orgy going on in the basement playroom. Larry had been sitting in an overstuffed living room chair, wearing only underpants, and trying to get the sense from a Superboy comic book. He felt very alert, but none of the words seemed to connect to anything. Wayne had to shout 3 or 4 times to make himself heard.
When Larry goes outside, he feels an immediate headache from the bright sunlight. Wayne takes Larry’s arm and steers him out of the house and down the beach. Yes, with Larry only in his underwear. They walk for a long time, and it’s made clear that Wayne is trying to get Larry to the point where he is sober enough to talk.
We are told that soon Larry begins to get an amphetamine hangover. We are also told that amphetamine hangovers are not as bad as booze hangovers, in which case, bring me some amphetamine because alcohol hangovers are the reason I quit drinking.
Larry thinks that if he had some “uppers,” he’d be able to walk more miles. He tells Wayne he wants to go back, but Wayne isn’t having it. He wants to talk to Larry and he wants to do it while Larry is sober. Larry beings to whine about how Wayne hates him just because he’s famous. Then he gets cramps in his thighs. I’ve never had a leg cramp, so I don’t get why this is a big deal. Larry whines like a baby, and Wayne massages Larry’s legs till the muscles loosen. I wonder if sudden cramping is a symptom of withdrawal from whatever drugs Larry’s been on.
Finally, Wayne begins to say what he’s been wanting to say.
“I wanted to talk to you. I had to get you out here and I wanted you straight enough so you could understand what I was laying on you…. the party’s got to end, Larry.”
Larry’s pretty sure Wayne is speaking English, but he still doesn’t completely grok what Wayne is saying. He wonders why on earth the party needs to stop when it’s practically just started.
Wayne points out that the record company only paid Larry 7K up front. Then he points out that this party Larry is throwing is extremely expensive. And remember, this was 1980. Adjusting for inflation on everything would be too difficult to bother with, so I’ll only do it for the grand total.
Beach house: $1,200 + $500 deposit
$1,000 for drugs
Even more for drugs, because apparently Larry told some guy to keep the cocaine and marijuana coming and to put it on Larry’s tab. This was weeks ago.
Finally, Larry begins to realize the trouble he is in. He asks how much he owes this guy.
“Not much on the pot. Pot’s cheap. $1200. 8 grand on the coke.”
Total cost of drugs: $9200+$1000. Do not ask me to do more math than that.
“Do you want the rest?” [Wayne asked]
Larry did not want the rest, but he nodded.
“There was a color TV upstairs. Someone ran a chair through it. I’d guess $300 for repairs. The wood paneling downstairs has been gouged to hell. $400. With luck. The picture window facing the beach got broken the day before yesterday. $300. The shag rug in the living room is totally kaput–cigarette burns, beer, whiskey. $400. I called the liquor store and they’re just as happy with your tab as [drug guy]. You owe the liquor store $600…you’ve also got a $400 tab down at the market, mostly for pizza, chips, tacos, etc. But the worst is the noise. Soon the cops are going to land…and you’ve got 4 or 5 heavies up there doing heroin. There’s 3 or 4 ounces of Mexican brown in the place.”
Larry asks if he owes money for the heroin* too, but Wayne shakes his head. However, if the cops find the heroin in the house Larry rented, Larry will still be in major trouble for it. Because drug laws in America suck.
“Your total for this little shindy so far comes to over $12,000.”
I did look up an inflation calculator for this one. This book was originally published in 1980, but the story takes place in the near future of 1985. In June of 1985, $12,000 translates in today’s money to roughly $27,000.
That’s one year of college tuition for me, and he spent it all on partying and drugs. I can’t even imagine.
Larry is about to cry. He doesn’t have $12,000 and he realizes he is in trouble. He agrees with Wayne: the party has to end. He spends a paragraph whining about his reputation. All those people are going to hate him no!
Wayne tells Larry that those people aren’t his real friends anyway, and why should he care? His real friends saw all this happening and they split days ago.
Larry then gets angry at Wayne for telling him all this. And I get it. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s a normal human reaction, and normal human reactions don’t always make sense.
Larry asks Wayne why he’s telling him this.
“I never got the feeling you liked me very much.”
“No…. but I really don’t dislike you, either. Beyond that, man, I couldn’t say.”
Fair enough. I mean, even if Wayne doesn’t particularly like Larry, that doesn’t mean he wants to see Larry stoned out of his mind 24/7.
“Go back and pull the plug,” Wayne said softly. “Then you get in that car and go. Just go, man. Stay away until you know that next royalty check is waiting for you.”
Larry thanks Wayne, who tells him to go away and get his shit together.
We cut away from the flashback to Larry’s mother tapping on his car window. She’s seen him pull in, and she’s already called in sick to work.
I love Mrs. Underwood.
Larry gives his mother a hug, and she invites him in. She asks if Larry has been driving all night, and he tells her he has.
Alice Underwood fixed him 3 eggs, bacon, toast, juice, coffee. When he had finished all but the coffee, he lit a cigarette and pushed back from the table. She flashed the cigarette a disapproving look but said nothing. That restored some of his confidence–some, but not much. She had always been good at biding her time.
Larry informs the audience that his mother would be around 51 now, and that her boobs seem to be bigger than they used to be. He thinks about asking her, but wisely does not. Who looks that closely at their mother’s boobs? Ew.
Finally Alice speaks.
“So, you came back. What brought you?”
I can understand why Larry might not want to tell his mother all the details, but he chose to come here, so he should probably at least try for some honesty.
“I guess I got to missing you, mom.”
She snorted. “That’s why you wrote me often?”
I like Alice. She’s the only person besides Wayne so far who’s calling Larry out on his bullshit.
Larry asks how she’s been doing, but it’s kinda clear he only asks because he thinks he should. Alice tells him she’s doing alright, but that she has back problems she sees a chiropractor for. Larry has to bite his tongue in order not to retort that chiropractors are frauds.
I’m not sure what the prevailing wisdom was back when this was written, but nowadays my nursing textbook said that actually, Chiropractors are very helpful for back problems. There is some science behind that. Now if you treat your chiropractor like a primary care doctor, that’s a bad idea, but I’m not seeing that that’s the case here.
There’s some back and forth about whether or not Larry has a girlfriend or his mom has a boyfriend.
I’m troubling her, he thought. That’s what it is. She doesn’t know what I want here. She hasn’t been waiting for 3 years for me to show up after all. She only wanted me to stay away.
Throughout this chapter, Larry has a troubling tendency to think that everyone who doesn’t immediately love him must secretly hate him. When Wayne told him the party had to end, Larry accused Wayne of just being jealous. Now he is accusing his mom of not really wanting him.
I mean, Larry is away for 3 years, during which time he never really writes to her, and then he shows up on her doorstep….how is she supposed to react? Of course you’re troubling her. Of course she’s wondering why you’re really here.
But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t want you back.
“I hear that song you got on the radio. I tell people, that’s my son. That’s Larry. Most of them don’t believe it.”
See, she even listens to your music and goes around telling people you’re her son. Of course she loves you.
Maybe we are supposed to see Larry as the unreliable narrator.
Larry is surprised his mother has heard his song, and wonders why she hasn’t mentioned it earlier, instead of talking about “piddling shit.”
This is why Larry drives me crazy for about the first half of the book. He is so full of himself. All that matters is that he’s this famous guy who sings a song people like. Because asking your mother how she’s doing and telling her why you’re here when you haven’t spoken to her in 3 years is “piddling shit.”
When Larry asks his mom if she likes the song, she responds….about the way I’d respond if I didn’t like the music but was trying to be polite. At least at first. Then she goes on to say some other stuff that makes me roll my eyes.
“As well as I like any of that music.” She looked at him firmly. “I think some of it sounds suggestive. Lewd…..the place for passion’s the bedroom,” she said curtly, closing off any aesthetic discussion of his hit record. “Also, you did something to your voice. You sound like a N—-……… when I was a girl, we thought Frank Sinatra was dreamy. Now they have this rap. Rap, they call it. Screaming, I call it. At least there’s no screaming on your record.”
Ok, so she’s a little old fashioned and doesn’t understand that one can respect the genre without liking the music. That’s kind of obnoxious, but it doesn’t make her a terrible person.
Finally, the topic of money comes up. Larry tells Alice that the record company hasn’t paid him much. This gives Alice a chance to talk about how bad it is to be in too much debt. This causes Larry to think about how his father died, leaving Alice to raise him on her own. No easy feat even by today’s terms, and no doubt doubly hard back then.
Her last remark to him as he and Rudy drove off in Rudy’s old ford was that they had poorhouses in California, too.
So, Larry left his mother after an argument, on poor terms, stayed away for 3 years, never wrote or called, then suddenly shows up on her doorstep, and then doesn’t understand why she’s a little wary. Yet she still invites him into her home, she still takes him in, and she still loves him.
Alice Underwood is a flawed character who has made some mistakes and is a bit judgmental. But she’s not a terrible person.
“You’re welcome to stay as long as you like, Larry. I’m not so good at expressing myself, maybe, but I’m glad to see you. We didn’t say goodbye very well. There were harsh words….for my part, I regret them. I only said them because I love you. I never knew how to say that just right, so I said it in other ways.”
I can understand that. I don’t necessarily agree with what she’s done, but she’s at least sort of apologizing.
Alice then tells Larry he can contribute monetarily if he wants to….or not.
“I’m working. Thousands aren’t. You’re still my son.”
Larry bursts into tears, and why is my kindle wet all of a sudden? Ahem. Anyway, Larry realizes that he hasn’t come here because he has nowhere else to go. He’s here because he’s gotten himself into trouble, and he’s afraid, and he wants his mother.
Alice thinks for a while about how tough Larry is, and how he uses that toughness in bad ways rather than good. She’d always thought Larry would change, but now that he’s a man, the time for that is mostly past.
She also thought there was good in Larry, great good. It was there, but this late on it would take nothing short of a catastrophe to bring it out. There was no catastrophe here; only her weeping son.
Alice gets Larry’s bed ready for him, and he sleeps for 18 hours.
So, that’s Larry Underwood. He spends most of the book annoying me, and it will be interesting to watch his character growth.
*A co worker has informed me that Heroin is incredibly cheap, and that they could get me whole bunch for only $15. They then refused to actually do so. (Not that I wanted it anyway, for the record.)