Welcome to Cold Mountain Penitentiary, home to the Depression-worn men of E Block. Convicted killers all, each awaits his turn to walk the Green Mile, keeping a date with "Old Sparky," Cold Mountain's electric chair. Prison guard Paul Edgecombe has seen his share of oddities in his years working the Mile. But he's never seen anyone like John Coffey, a man with the body of a giant and the mind of a child, condemned for a crime terrifying in its violence and shocking in its depravity. In this place of ultimate retribution, Edgecombe is about to discover the terrible, wondrous truth about Coffey, a truth that will challenge his most cherished beliefs... and yours.
This book is, for lack of a better word, unusual for a Stephen King novel. Yeah, we all know King as the guy who wrote Carrie, The Shining, It, and The Mist, among other works. The Green Mile is unique in that it has no elements of horror and is more of a mystical and, to an extent, spiritual tale with a sort of Gatsby-esque plot. Only in this case, Paul Edgecombe fills in the role of Nick Carraway and John Coffey that of Jay Gatsby. The story is told through Edgecombe’s narration, alternating between the events of Coffey’s arrival to the prison and Edgecombe’s present-day retelling as an old man writing about the events in a nursing home.
The alternating scenes work well. The novel was originally published as six novellas, one coming out each month over a six-month period, which were then collected into a single volume. The first chapter of most of the installments was usually Edgecombe in the retirement home looking over what he’s written and talking about what goes on in the home and how some of the people there remind him of those he knew during his time on E Block, with the second chapter picking up where the previous installment left off. Each installment ended in a cliffhanger that made me want to know what would happen in the next one. This being said, the plot still stands as really solid. There’s a good mystery thrown in, and I really wanted to know who was guilty and who wasn’t. Even though some flashbacks are woven in during the E Block narration, they aren’t enough to disturb the general flow of the story and actually drop clues to help the reader solve the mystery along with Edgecombe.
The biggest bone I have to pick with this book is the lack of characterization in some characters that probably could’ve used more depth. Some who have almost as much screen time as Brutus Howell, another guard on E Block, aren’t as fleshed out as he is. Because they weren’t as characterized, they felt more like two bodies just taking up space; there wasn’t anything really unique about them that made them memorable. I also would’ve liked to see more with the prison warden, Hal Moores, as he and his wife play a role in the big reveal about Coffey. Ultimately, though, the focus on Coffey pays off. Because of this focus and the way King portrays him, I was in love with him and found him to be one of the most endearing characters I’ve encountered in fiction.
As the focus of the novel, John Coffey and Paul Edgecombe’s characterizations are done the best. Even though we only get his narration and don’t see him from another perspective, we can see how Edgecombe changes as the novel progresses. He goes from this sort of staunch, I’m-just-doing-my-job sort of character to a more compassionate one and develops bonds with two of the prisoners he’s in charge of at the time, one of them being Coffey. If you were to look up the definition of the gentle giant, a picture of John Coffey would be there. He is literally the epitome of that archetype, but not in a negative way. He’s unbelievably massive but is kind, slightly dumb, and afraid of the dark. The only thing he knows how to spell is his name and will admit so on first meeting. His actions through the course of the novel reveal that he is wiser than he lets on. I once heard someone call this story a “veiled retelling of the story of Jesus Christ,” which in a way makes sense. Read it and you’ll see what they mean.
Of all the characters, I’d have to say my favorite is Brutus Howell. I choose him because, of the secondary characters, he is the one who is most characterized. He is depicted as a great friend and loyal to the group; not to mention he drops some seriously hilarious one-liners and is probably the most quotable character in the novel.
Sensitive readers, beware. This novel is a real tearjerker. I felt rather melancholy the first time I finished reading it, and this time wasn’t much different. This novel is a beautiful example that shows that Stephen King is far more than a one-trick pony. The mystery and the big reveal about Coffey, as well as the processes leading up to the reveal, illustrate how King can create an engaging storyline and characters who you will definitely be thinking about even after finishing the novel.
If you can, I also suggest you check out the movie adaptation, which follows the novel pretty faithfully. Tom Hanks was great as Paul Edgecombe but the real star of the show was the late Michael Clarke Duncan, who gave an absolutely stellar performance as John Coffey.