Cujo is by far the most surprising Stephen King book I've had the fortune to read, mostly because I only remember the film from my childhood and it had a rather happy -- if harrowing -- ending. At its surface, King's novel is a story about a gentle Saint Bernard who has the misfortune of contracting rabies and terrorizes a mother and son, trapped in a sweltering car. But beyond that, Cujo is a story about desperation, about the monsters that lurk within all of us -- human and not -- and about the way we all strive to displace blame in an effort to reconcile unfortunate circumstances.
Donna Trenton is a complex protagonist, one who has an affair because she's scared that all she has left in her adulthood is being someone's wife, someone's mother, and when she tries to end that affair, her lover attacks and considers raping her. Yes All Women, indeed. When her husband goes out of town for a business trip in a last-ditch attempt to save his advertising business, which is teetering on the verge of collapse thanks to some troublesome red dye in a batch of children's cereal, Donna is left at home to wonder if her marriage can be saved. She's also left with a car that needs to be fixed almost as urgently as her marriage, and a son that needs her care. Joe Camber, a nearby mechanic, has been murdered by his rabid dog, and his wife, Charity, took their son away on a trip to visit relatives where she hopes to instill some civility and inspire her son to see all that life has to offer outside of rural, small-town living -- her own B-plot of desperation that examines ideas of nature and nurture, while also allowing us to empathize more with Cujo through the eyes of his owners.
All of these circumstances contrive to lead Donna to the Camber home, where Donna and her son Tad are trapped in Donna's broken down little Pinto in a terrifying stand-off. King vacillates between Donna and Tad, and Charity and her son, and Donna's husband Vic, and poetically ties all of these narrative threads together in a story that ultimately culminates in tragedy, where no one is to blame but the sad circumstance of life, a series of events that conspire -- not spitefully against us, but conspire all the same -- to place us in situations where tough, desperate choices must be made.
There's plenty of blame-seeking, from the advertising sub-plot involving Vic and his partner, who both consider who might be at fault for the havoc wreaked by the batch of bad cereal, to Charity, who contemplates whether it's simply nature or the way her son was nurtured by his father that have made him so callous to and resentful of those with more means than their own. Donna and Vic struggle with fault over her affair, but acts of being unfaithful are always complex and aren't so easily explained away.
In the end, Donna is one of King's great female protagonists, a woman who takes risks and makes one tough call after another, ultimately beating a rabid dog to death with a splintered baseball bat. And even though she did what needed to be done, even though she made sacrifices and literally bled for her son, it wasn't enough to save his little life. In the end, Donna and Vic both wonder what could have been done differently -- if Vic hadn't left town, especially when his family was already threatening to fall apart; if Donna had left Tad with a babysitter, or if she had taken the car somewhere else or made a simple phone call; if Donna had never had an affair. In the wake of tragedy, we blame ourselves, we wonder what could have been done differently, we wonder if the tragic outcome could have been avoided if only we made this simple choice instead of that one, or this series of choices instead of that series of choices. We try desperately to place the blame on ourselves because we can confront ourselves and we are in control of ourselves, so we can control how much we suffer for our perceived transgressions, and we do this as if it will somehow make what happened easier to understand.
Cujo is heartbreaking not just because of its narrative trajectory, but because of the beautiful style in which King writes. It's not as heavy on the prose as The Shining, but there's still a hauntingly elegant and poetic style to the novel, and especially to the way he elucidates on the tragic conclusion.
Unfortunately, King doesn't remember writing Cujo at all, thanks to his struggles with addiction in the '80s. That feels sort of like a slight -- like someone who hurts your feelings, but doesn't remember doing it because they were drunk.