Well, lots, of course. For one thing, lots less: the man suffers from the sort of logorrhea which newspaper-serialization made endemic among 19th century novelists, with less excuse. Lots of his books could be cut in half, to considerable advantage, but of course editors aren't going to do that. (His short stories, for obvious reasons, don't suffer from this so much.) For another: writing simply and exclusively in the American demotic has its advantages, audience not least among them, but limits the kind of stories he can tell without getting the tone all wrong. Indeed, there are probably people who still would boggle if you told them that King could write a novel --- a short novel --- with a concise, elevated and poetic diction and pull it off. But he did, more than ten years ago now, in the single best thing he's ever written, The Gunslinger, an intoxicating mix of Shane, The Waste Land, Robert Browning, Thomas Mallory, Clifford Simak, the fantasies of Carlos Castaneda and haunting prose (for years I could recite passages word for word). It was a part --- a small part --- of the story of Roland, the last gunslinger, as he pursued the man in black, vengeance, and the Dark Tower, across years and continents, implacably, relentlessly, heeding but paying the cost to himself and everyone around himself, though ``the world had moved on.''
It was, as I said, the best thing he'd ever written; also gnawingly incomplete. King promised more; sketched a vision for the series which could only be called grandiose; and began, every few years, to produce sequels. These do not, alas, rise to the same heights, or fit within the same compact compass, as the first; but they're still fine books. (Mild spoilers begin here.) Part of the growth may be attributed to King's ever-expanding ambitions for the series, which now seems like it will embrace, not only all of his fictional worlds, but all worlds whatsoever, and the Dark Tower (or perhaps rose bush) which is the common center of them all. Something is (or was; or will be; for time is flexible) terribly wrong there, and so the world has moved on, and not for the better. Roland has acquired companions, drawn from three different times in late 20th century New York, one of whom he had already met, and sacrificed to his quest, in The Gunslinger. His own world, which is perhaps one of our most distant futures, or floating somewhere to one side of us in the stream of time, no longer consists of a handful of evocative details and fragmented images, suspended in an equally evocative blankness, but has acquired customs, forms of speech, inhabitants, something like a geography, and (in this book) a politics that Ibn Khaldûn or C. J. Cherryh would approve of.
Wizard and Glass is the latest installment in this continuing saga, and a welcome sign that (having only three more books to go) King may actually live to finish it. It consists, almost entirely, of Roland explaining to his new companions how he came to fight a small war, meet the love of his life and get her killed, one summer in his early teens. (This is not a spoiler.) We forget just how young the heroes and heroines of medieval romance are, and how young their real-life counterparts were. (Well, some of us do. Others are only a few generations removed from an Old Country where they would be expected to be married and taking an active part in vendettas at fifteen.) King portrays the explosive mixture of adolescent impulsiveness, stubbornness and over-confidence with adult powers, responsibilities and passions quite convincingly. Along the way to the fore-doomed end, we have: idiots, horses, mysterious machinery left behind by the Great Old Ones (Sunoco, Exxon and Citgo) blindly continuing its mindless work, dances, treachery, maiden aunts, vivid landscapes, double-crosses, the turning of the seasons and of the moon (or rather, moons), triple-crosses, concubinage, family squabbles, an army of desperadoes, the last oxen in the world, a chorus of ``Hey Jude,'' a discourse on true love (``boring... like any addictive drug''), and unpleasant goings-own about Halloween. And, of course, the Wicked Witch of the East: for Roland's story has now swept up Oz in its wake, which he doesn't understand (neither does the witch), but his companions and readers will.
I half wish I could attribute some profound significance to Roland's story, either some message it carries or what it says about our time and place, but honestly I can't. It's nothing more than a very well-told story, but also nothing less, and that ought to be enough.