Tuesday, November 29, 2011

11/22/63, by Stephen King

Scribner, 2011
849 pp

"You can change history, Jake. Do you understand that? John Kennedy can live."

 After having been a bit disappointed in Under the Dome, I wasn't so sure I wanted to shell out the $$ for this one, but because  a) I needed a light read at the moment and b) the premise sounded interesting, I coughed up the cash and brought it home.  What I thought this was going to be and what it turned out to be are on opposite ends of the spectrum. I thought I'd be reading an alternative-history/what-ifish kind of thing based on a thwarting of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, and there is a smattering of that, but I got a surprisingly good story, one that kept me flipping pages just to find out how everything turns out.  For a book of sci-fi/escape-type fiction, 11/22/63 is a winner.

The long and short of the basic story is this: English teacher Jake Epping gets a call from Al Templeton, the owner of a small diner in the town of Lisbon, Maine. Al's diner has a unique feature: in the kitchen's pantry, there is a portal through which Al has been traveling back and forth through time.  No matter when he leaves, he's always taken to the same day in September, 1958; no matter how long he stays there, he's only away for two minutes in the present.  Another feature of the portal is that when Al goes back in time, everything he set in motion in his earlier visit is totally reset.  Now  Al is dying of lung cancer, and doesn't have much time left, and he wants Jake to pick up where he left off -- and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy back on 11/22/63.  Al offers Jake "a chance to become a major player not just in American history, but in the history of the world", saying that by preventing Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting the president, Jake can  "save millions of lives."

Of course, Jake isn't so sure about time travel, and has two main concerns about it.  First, there's his concern about the idea of paradox. For example, when he asks what if he goes back and kills his grandfather, Al's response is "Why the fuck would you do that?" Second, Jake worries about the "butterfly effect," the idea that when the past is changed, there may be serious consequences in the present.  So he decides to take a test drive into the past, to undo a particularly horrific crime.  The trip reveals two things to Jake: first, Eisenhower-era America is a kinder, gentler place and second, time travel may indeed have repercussions. The first trip leads him to a second outing into the past, and Jake becomes more entranced by the last years of the 1950s, but he's still not quite sure that he wants to do what Al is asking of him.   After all, Jake admits that "most of his knowledge of the Kennedy assassination came from an Oliver Stone movie," but circumstances ultimately make him feel he has no choice.  Armed with Al's copious notes on Oswald, the people and events leading up to the fateful day, off he goes.  And this departure is where Jake's story ultimately begins, as he begins to acquaint himself with the early 1960s and begins to find a place for himself in the past as George Amberson; it is Jake's time in Texas that ultimately provides the core of this novel.

A complete suspension of disbelief is required, but isn't that the case in all of King's novels? Even though this novel falls within the realm of science fiction with the time travel element, King doesn't get into a lot sciencespeak about the mechanics of time travel; nor does he get all caught up in discussions about the "hoary old time-travel paradox." While the lack of explanation of the existence of a portal and the means by which it works may be a drawback for some diehard sci-fi readers, others will find it to be a very human story, based largely on King's characterizations.

In this novel, as in all of this author's books, there are some really bad guys, and there are some mysterious figures as well, but his best work is obvious in the very sad, flawed human beings who nonetheless have a huge capacity for goodness -- the reader can't help but be moved by their stories and become caught up in their lives. But what also makes this book work and work well is the author's use of fiction interspersed with real events and real people -- allowing the reader to easily identify with the story.   Oswald, for example, is so well portrayed that you'd think King had met the guy himself.  He comes off as a pathetic little man who wants to do something really big to compensate for his nothingness.  The scenes featuring Oswald and his wife Marina are believeable, as are the scenes where Oswald's overbearing mother steamrolls into their lives. It's very obvious that King has done an immense amount of research.   Beyond the characters, the late 50s/early 60s setting is well evoked with his capture of the music, food, fashions, TV shows, cars, and attitudes of the time; King's reconstruction of this time is incredibly realistic. 11/22/63 never really gets dull or overbearing, considering its size, and there are some exciting moments as well, especially as Jake is pitted against forces he doesn't quite understand on his way to the final showdown. 

One of the ideas in this book that I particularly liked is that every individual act of violence, every act of malice or brutality is "harmonized" with every other act, and that there is a "dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life."  The novel also brings home the fact that what we've lost will remain with us and stay a part of us forever.  My only niggle with the book is that the explanations behind the ultimate consequences of Jake's actions are sort of quickly glossed over, but the overall story is so good and so well written that it just didn't matter in the long run.

I can definitely recommend this novel. This is one of King's best works in recent years, and although at 849 pages it may seem overwhelming, the story and time go by quickly as you read.  While snooty-poot readers may thumb their noses at the book, don't listen to them. It's definitely worth the time, and turns out to be a great escape for a few hours.


  1. Yes, the snooty-poots don't like Stephen King, most who think that all his books are horror novels and minimize his amazing ability to write completely realistic character (in any time and at any age). I just finished 11/22/63 and loved it, but I honestly can't say that many of his books have let me down, although there's a few I probably won't ever re-read and the chances of me reading the book about baseball that he co-authored are practically non-existent.

    Great review, loved the way you worked the quotes into it. :)

  2. Thanks, Kate! I probably won't read the baseball one either. My favorite books of his are still The Gunslinger series novels, and those I probably will reread someday.


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