I’m not really a Stephen King kind of guy. I have nothing against one of the 20th century’s foremost authors, and greatly respect the fact that he has sold more than 300 million books & had his work adapted into more than three dozen feature films, numerous TV movies, and even plays & comic books. It’s just that I’m not a big fan of the horror/suspense genre. Until now the only King book I’d ever read was Christine (about a possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury) when I was probably 13 or 14 years old. I’ve seen bits & pieces of movies like Stand By Me, Misery, Carrie, & The Shining, and found the 1996 adaptation of Thinner creepy in a good way. I had absolutely no clue that The Shawshank Redemption (a splendid film) was based on a King novella until years after I’d first seen it.
This lack of any meaningful history or connection with Stephen King’s work was why I found it odd when I decided not all that long ago to place his latest novel, 11/22/63, in my Amazon shopping cart.
I knew from the outset that 11/22/63 had three things going for it. First, it is not a traditional horror story of the ilk that made Stephen King a household name. It’s more of a fantasy with a little bit of history thrown into the mix. Second, the assassination of JFK serves as a major plot point. I was not yet born when Camelot was beguiling the nation and Kennedy’s death rocked it to its core, but it is just one of those stories, like the Titanic or The Civil War, which continues to fascinate generations of people centuries after the event itself. And finally, a key element of 11/22/63 is time travel, and time travel is almost always a very cool literary device. Those three things convinced me to give the book a whirl, and after reading it I am very seriously considering going back in time myself and giving the rest of King’s novels a looksee.
One of the most beloved time travel adventures…from my generation anyway…is the 1980’s Back to the Future film trilogy. But the adventures of Marty McFly & Doc Brown were child’s play compared to the intricacies of this story. King takes the concept a step further by giving us rules. First of all, the main character, a 30-something Maine high school English teacher named Jake, can only go back to a particular point…specifically September 9, 1958. Secondly, whatever Jake changes when he goes back in time will be reset to its original outcome if he comes back to present day and then goes back thru the “rabbit hole” into the past again. These rules are very important to keep in mind.
Jake is introduced to this time portal by Al, the elderly owner of a local diner. Al discovered this path to the past several years ago in the back of his eatery’s pantry, and has made several trips to what Jake eventually comes to refer to as the Land of Ago. No one in modern day Maine knows this because every time the traveler comes back only 2 minutes have passed in the present. At some point Al became obsessed with the idea of stopping the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but has concluded that he will not be able to complete the mission because he is quickly dying from lung cancer. So he wants Jake to do it. Al believes that if JFK had lived and Lyndon Johnson not become President other significant events might not have occurred. The Vietnam War…and the deaths of millions of American soldiers…would not have happened. Martin Luther King Jr. would have lived. Bobby Kennedy would have lived. Basically the whole path to hell that the United States seemed to take in the 60’s would have been prevented.
Surprisingly Jake agrees to do this crazy thing, but he wants to kick the tires a bit first. Going back to 1958 Jake becomes George and just has to hang out for a few weeks…long enough to prevent the mass murder of almost an entire family by their drunken husband/father on Halloween night. Jake/George knows about the situation because the only survivor of the massacre is the high school janitor who wrote an essay about it in a GED class Jake teaches. This subplot takes up about the first quarter of the book and might actually be the stronger portion. At any rate, Jake/George quickly learns firsthand something that Al taught him, something that becomes an ongoing theme…the past is obdurate and does not want to be changed. He runs into roadblocks that Marty McFly could never have even dreamed of. I will not reveal the outcome of the mission, but suffice to say that, despite the past actively fighting against change, Jake/George becomes comfortable enough with the whole idea that once he comes back to modern day he does not hesitate to again go back in time to pursue Lee Harvey Oswald.
And that is the meat of the plot. Once Jake/George is back in the Land of Ago for the second time he must hang out for 5 years until the events of that fall of 1963 begin to unfold. This is not really a hardship, as he begins to enjoy a time when the root beer tasted better, the cars were far cooler, and life was quieter & lived at a slower pace. He moves to a small burb outside of Dallas. He makes friends. He gets a job at the local high school. He stalks Oswald’s every move to make sure that he really did act alone and that none of the plethora of conspiracy theories are true. He makes a boatload of cash by betting on sports events of which he already knows the outcome. And he falls in love with the young & beautiful Sadie, the school’s librarian.
It is these last two things that gets Jake/George into trouble, complicates his life, and compromises the outcome of his mission. The past is indeed obdurate and does not want to be changed.
Does Jake/George prevent Oswald from blowing Kennedy’s brains out?? Does this make 21st century America a better place?? Does Jake/George come back to modern day Maine and resume his life, or does he decide to stay in the Land of Ago with the love of his life?? These are questions I will not answer. You’ll have to read the book.
At over 800 pages I must admit that King probably could have tightened things up a bit and trimmed atleast a hundred pages or so, but it’s a small nit to pick. 11/22/63 is an engrossing read. It is thought provoking, well written, and quite possibly one of the finest time travel yarns ever told. I read somewhere that a movie has already been given the greenlight under the capable direction of Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia). But unfortunately I know how these things go. With such a big novel they’ll end up eliminating whole characters & subplots, robbing the story of its rich nuance and depth. Ah well…that’s Hollywood. At any rate, no matter how much the Left Coasters end up butchering the story on the big screen, we’ll still have the book. And that’s not a bad deal.
- Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King (leeswammes.wordpress.com)
- toepic’s cbr4# Review #7: 11/22/63 by Stephen King (cannonballread4.wordpress.com)
- Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King (stevebetz.wordpress.com)
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- Book Review – 11/22/63: A Novel by Stephen King (duffbert.com)
- 11/22/63 (jfhilborne.wordpress.com)
- If You Could Change History, Would You? Should You? Stephen King’s ’11/22/63′ (Review) (popmatters.com)
- 11/22/63 – Stephen King (booklolly.wordpress.com)
- 11/22/63, by Stephen King. (Scribner.) An English teacher travels back to 1958 by way of a time portal in a Maine diner. His assignment is to stop Lee Harvey Oswald. (nytimesbestsellingbooks.wordpress.com)