The press material for Owen King’s debut novel, Double Feature, doesn’t make the connection to his family, but that won’t keep anyone from noticing he’s Stephen King’s youngest son. The first of the family’s many releases this year—Joe Hill’s next novel comes out April 30, Stephen King has two books scheduled for 2013—Double Feature is a sprawling family drama about artistic failure, forgiveness, and learning to be satisfied. It has grand aspirations for material not typically treated with much gravitas, but ultimately sets too much in motion without enough resolution.
There’s enough plot in Double Feature to fill three or four books. It starts with recent film-school graduate Sam Dolan getting ready to shoot his first movie, a heavily autobiographical script that condenses four years of college into a single spring festival. Sam’s unreliable, then absent, always boisterous father, B-movie star Booth Dolan, who takes an entertainment-only approach to cinema, finds the script “portentous.” Sam’s vision of the college experience leans heavily on disillusionment about the future, and explores none of the fun parts. During filming, the assistant director has a psychotic break, and takes action that leaves the film a shell of Sam’s original vision, but garners it a cult following à la The Room or Birdemic.
Double Feature’s largest sections pick up nearly a decade later, covering one long weekend in 2011. While Sam experiences an unfortunately Elizabethtown-esque romantic arc with a woman he meets at his latest wedding-videographer gig, he also juggles an affair with a married former flame, and threats of violence from her former-baseball-player husband. Meanwhile, his half-sister runs away from her mentally unstable mother, and takes Sam to visit their father. Several long flashbacks recount other parts of the family’s history: how Sam’s parents met while Booth filmed his debut, teenage Sam realizing his father has a mistress, and his mother Allie’s death. Each of those sections is rich enough for expansion, because King creates a handful of fascinating characters, Booth chief among them.
It’s unfair to compare Owen King’s first novel to his father’s legacy, but given how Hill has followed in their dad’s footsteps, it’s notable that King has made some similar choices in subject matter. King Sr. has used writer protagonists extensively, creating horrifying visions of writer’s block or fanatical readers, commenting on the craft within narrative. Double Feature takes a similar tack with cinema, but lacks the thematic depth, especially with the cacophonous, saccharine finale—which gathers almost every character under one roof at a party—drowning out any unified meaning. The passages that recount films (both Booth’s fictional ones, like Hard Mommies, the Hellhole trilogy, and Black Soul Riders, and musings on Dog Day Afternoon and Touch Of Evil) form Sam’s authoritative point of view, but these digressions lengthen an already-overstuffed book. One thing King inherited from his father is a penchant for ever-expanding verbiage.
King writes in an afterword that he based Booth Dolan on Orson Welles—a connection strengthened by Booth shooting a scene for a lost Welles picture during his acting heyday. Booth’s effusive, happy-go-lucky attitude is infectious to everyone except Sam, but a chain of events in the 2011 section forces him to reconsider and ultimately address whether he can ever fully forgive his father. Double Feature is affecting at times, but King’s style often mirrors his protagonist’s filmmaking tendencies: too serious, and clever but unfocused. It’s a promising first novel, but it stumbles to reach a satisfying conclusion, however ambiguous.