Copyright 2011 by Stephen King
Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
On November 22, 1963, three shots rang out in Dallas, President Kennedy died, and the world changed. What if you could change it back?
I have become slightly obsessed with mammoth Stephen King novels.
I recall standing in a bookstore at the London Heathrow airport, staring at the gigantic copy of 11/22/63 on the shelf, wondering if it was a book I could reasonably get through. This was a bit of an alien feeling for me, as I’m an avid reader and have quite possibly never in my life avoided a book solely because of its length.
A bit of a nerd, I have avoided books because I didn’t like the font the text was printed in, or the quality of the paper between the covers; but never because of the length – it’s a matter of principle.
But 11/22/63… I just couldn’t bring myself to buy it. I rationalized that the humongous novel would have to be lugged onto the airplane and wouldn’t slip nicely into my purse for the rest of my travel. These things are true and have influenced my reading decisions on trips in the past (see my book review of “The Girl You Left Behind”, by Jojo Meyes, which I chose partially because it would be easy to tote to the pool during my summer vacation). I ended up buying Gone Girl, and didn’t regret a moment of my time spent immersed in its pages.
But somehow this story followed me. A friend at work asked me shortly after I returned (without knowing of my innocent dilemma in the British bookstore) if I had read King’s story about time travel and the Kennedy assassination. A bit frustrated with myself, I had to say no – and learned that my friend loved the book and highly recommended it. So off to the library I went.
King gets right into the meat and potatoes of this story. Jake Epping, an English teacher for high school equivalency students, is friends with the somewhat eccentric owner of a grubby diner in a small town in Maine (if you didn’t realize King’s story would be set in Maine, you are missing out on a huge body of work of freaky stories about weird shit that happens in Maine). Naturally, the diner owner has a time travel portal and within a few chapters, our hero is off in time, back to 1958.
Al, the diner owner, has spent the final years of his life in the past; on an epic but unfulfilled mission to stop the Kennedy assassination. He believes that somehow the world would be a better place if JFK kept on President-ing throughout the rest of the 1960s.
Our hero, Jake, is lured into a trip to the past out of curiosity and a desire to stop the murder of the family of one of his GED students. Most of the first 1/3 of the novel is dedicated to this story. It’s interesting, and it lays the groundwork for some of what comes ahead, but I have to admit that I got a bit impatient with this part of the narrative.
Then Epping gets to his real mission, and the reader can settle in to King’s brilliant storytelling. Of course our hero finds himself in small town Texas. Of course he meets a girl – there’s always a girl, isn’t there? It’s a fantastic, seemingly back story, to the real tale of Jake’s careful tracking of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who is going to kill Kennedy and therefore who must be killed before 11/22/63.
Despite being completely immersed in this story, I couldn’t help but marvel at King’s skill at telling a story about the past in such wonderful detail. You really feel that you are transported to the early 1960s; the cultural norms, the music, the food, the clothes. The amount of research and attention to detail is phenomenal and is really what makes this such a fantastic story to read.
The second 2/3 of the book are page-turners. I lugged this book everywhere to keep reading it; to the coffee shop in the mornings, to the couch to read in front of the fire, even into the bathtub (don’t tell the librarian!). I was both desperate and scared to know if and how Jake Epping was finally going to confront Oswald and if he would succeed in changing history – and what would happen if he did.
I won’t spoil the ending for you by telling you if Kennedy makes it out of Dallas or not; it’s not really the point, anyway. The point is imagining if he had, and what you would give up to make that happen.
So if you find yourself in for a long flight or train or bus ride this new year, pick up this humongous book. If you enjoy history and mystery and delicious storytelling, you will be glad you did.
Happy New Year, internet!