Or, let’s kill Lee Harvey Oswald before he shoots JFK!
By Stephen King, Scribner
What would you do if you could travel back in time to 1958? Except make a fortune from sporting bets that is . . . an idea which you and Stephen King both probably got from watching Back to the Future Part II!
Why, save President Kennedy from the sniper’s bullet on 22 November 1963 of course! (That is, if you’re a Democrat obviously.)
The only problem is that it’ll involve hanging out in the past for four years waiting for that fateful day in Dallas to finally roll around while only a few minutes pass in your present of 2011. This is the dilemma facing a tall gangly Jake Epping, a 35-year-old English teacher in a small town in Maine in Stephen King’s latest novel.
Early on the time travel rules for Stephen King’s book is set out: if Jake fails at his task of saving Kennedy initially, it means that he can return to 2011 and try again. The only problem is that he has to then wait another four years for his second attempt. If he succeeds and wants the changes to stick it means that he must either stay in the 1960s for the rest of his life or return to 2011 without ever returning again.
Along the way complications arise. Jake is a fish out of water no matter how hard he tries to blend into late-1950s America society. An early attempt to save a family from being killed by an estranged and homicidal spouse on Halloween night doesn’t exactly work out as planned.
Also, the past is obdurate and does not want to be changed and throws all kinds of obstacles into Jake’s path – anything from flat car tires at inopportune moments to homicidal bookies. Biggest complication though is that along the way Jake falls in love . . .
11/22/63 (awkward title!) represents a return to form of sorts for author King whose prolific post-1980s output has been patchy to say the least. It is simply his best book in ages although that doesn’t mean that it isn’t flawed. It may be slickly written, but at 849 pages 11/22/63 is still too long (you’ll be glad if you have a Kindle). A more judicious editor could have hacked off a few subplots and some extraneous scenes without the novel losing anything on the way.
Also some scenes are pure syrup: one can imagine Steven Spielberg laying on the overwrought John Williams strings and Vaseline smeared lens at times!
11/22/63 plays to King’s strengths: a high concept (which the author admitted he mulled over as long ago as back in the early-1970s) wedded to a lovingly and well-researched piece of Americana and King’s misanthropic violence which can erupt at any moment in the narrative.
A whiff of semi-autobiographical authenticity hangs over 11/22/63. King’s protagonist is an English-teacher in Maine (King was a teacher before he started writing full-time) and our hero also spends a lot of time in hospital recuperating from a brutal assault, a bit like King after the car accident which almost killed him. Like King, Jake Epping is also a very tall man.
Like all good airport reads Stephen King however makes the reader keep on reading just for one reason: to find out how it all ends. Will Jake stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK? And what happens if he does? Will it have been worth four years of Jake’s life? Will Kennedy for instance escalate America’s disastrous involvement in the Vietnam War as his predecessor did? Was Kennedy’s death really the turning point where everything turned sour for the USA?
In his afterword King says that his son, the novelist Joe Hill (who is in some ways a better writer than his old man), suggested an alternative, and better, ending to the one King originally had in mind. He however never reveals what ending he initially had in mind though.
(King believes that Oswald acted alone and eschews any conspiracy theories in his book. The temptation must have been great for the author to spice things up, but became convinced after reading Gerald Posner’s seminal Case Closed book that Kennedy’s assassination was a random event: Oswald was an unstable character who only weeks before tried to shoot a right-wing ex-general and probably couldn’t believe his luck when he read in the newspapers that the president’s cavalcade passed by the window of where he was working at the time.)
Flaws aside this is the best Stephen King novel in ages. A welcome change of pace: a science fiction page turner with some minor horror elements and pure King Americana thrown into the mix.