If you had the chance to change the course of history, would you? Would the consequences be what you hoped?
Jake Epping 35 teaches high school English in Lisbon Falls, Maine, and cries reading the brain-damaged janitor’s story of childhood Halloween massacre by their drunken father. On his deathbed, pal Al divulges a secret portal to 1958 in his diner back pantry, and enlists Jake to prevent the 11/22/1963 Dallas assassination of American President John F. Kennedy. Under the alias George Amberson, our hero joins the cigarette-hazed full-flavored world of Elvis rock n roll, Negro discrimination, and freeway gas guzzlers without seat belts. Will Jake lurk in impoverished immigrant slums beside troubled loner Lee Harvey Oswald, or share small-town friendliness with beautiful high school librarian Sadie Dunhill, the love of his life?
I am a person who struggles to accept when she is wrong, yet I am so happy to be wrong about Stephen King. After toiling through King’s The Stand, I was prepared to dismiss him. In The Stand King never stretched his storytelling skills. Everything escalated to the climax as one would expect and everything fell from the climax as one would expect. Ho-hum.
But in 11/22/63, I had moments of pity for Stephen King, since he wrote himself into character dilemmas and plot conundrums that defied conventional resolution. Nothing unrolled as expected in this book. So I pitied him. I pitied King because I knew he must have passed days and weeks struggling to extract himself from these self-created authorial quagmires. At the same time I admired him because he had actually done it: he had taken chances; he had pushed the story to uncomfortable places, places where a 10¢ resolution and a bit of deus ex machina wouldn’t suffice.
The novel is a true behemoth with over 800 pages dedicated to multiple genres. And although every genre element adds to the book, its greatest weakness is how it is simultaneously so many things. Sometimes King didn’t seem to know what the book wanted to be. Was it a simple time travel tale? a straight thriller? a revisionist piece of historical fiction? a small town love story? It is all of these things, but occasionally he lingers too long on one element, leading to some duller parts, especially around the middle. Yet it comes together splendidly in the end in the spectacular final 200 pages. By that point, the intrigue is staged, the characters are fully endeared to the reader and to each other, and King’s daringly bold plot strands have knotted into an unsolvable mess.
In the final chapters, every other page or so punches you in the heart. While the time travel bits keep you turning the pages—from the outset, you know that changing the past can only go poorly; the question is how it will go poorly—it is the character relationships that endure. For all of the bluster surrounding Stephen King as contemporary literature’s most famous horror writer, 11/22/63 is achingly romantic. It is gentle tale, which means it is King at his harshest.