I suppose if you’re going to write a narrative involving time travel, you should do something big with it, like save President John F. Kennedy’s life from a communist marksman on a bright Dallas day. At nearly 900 pages, there’s plenty of heft here and a lot of universe building. It’s obvious that Mr. King spent a lot of time and effort researching the five year span before Kennedy’s assassination and he’s ready to contrast it with our cleaner, internet-friendly 2011 just to show you how he still is. This review is going to have plenty of spoilers, so unless you’ve read the book, I’ll just say this: it’s well worth your time. It’s not a great book, but it’s a great adventure in a time long before many of us were born.
Stephen King As Hero
11/22/63 is written from the perspective of Jake Epping, an English teacher in modern times who carries a Nokia, has recently divorced from his emotionally distant wife, and can’t cry. In just a sentence, you’ve read all you need to know about the book’s protagonist as he serves as a null character for King’s thoughts, hopes, and musings. Instead of building a character from scratch, he presents this personal shell instead. Admittedly, Epping would’ve been an incredibly difficult character to sell as a protagonist if it weren’t for the fact that he’s trying to save JFK’s life. Anything less and the book would’ve probably fallen apart. But as it is, King is interesting. This is the guy who writes regularly in Entertainment Weekly and keeps tabs on the cultural zeitgeist, so he’s more than ready to highlight the various clashes in the fifty year culture clash, which serves as an amusing anchor between the two disparate eras. He’s also more than happy to showcase his personal vocabulary in pain after Jake is nearly beaten to death by a Dallas kingpin that he won far too much money from, a parallel to when King was struck by a van over a decade ago. Of course, he’s more than happy to lean against the fourth wall with a wink and a nod.
So here’s how the time travel mechanism works: the terminal Al Templeton, a friend of Jake’s, owns a diner. In the pantry in the back is a rabbit hole that brings you back to a specific time on a specific September day in 1958. You can spend as much time there as you like and when you return to the modern era (only two minutes appears to elapse in that time to the contemporary observer), you experience all the changes that you bring about. Should you go back into the rabbit hole, everything resets, so anything you accomplished on the last trip instantly disappears. It’s an interesting mechanism, not fantastic, but it works and King is more than happy to laugh off any potential paradoxes. Al convinces Jake to use this rabbit hole and spend the next five years of his life in the past to save Kennedy’s life, handing him a notebook with plenty of notes to get by and knock off Lee Harvey Oswald before he commits the terrible deed.
The Past Harmonizes, The Past is Obdurate
So Jake Epping the school teacher goes back in time fifty three years, adopting the name George Amberson and becoming… a school teacher. His first move is to save the family of his school’s janitor, a deadly massacre brought about by his drunken father and a sledgehammer. George fails the first time, but he’s only lost a month and a half (and part of his scalp, which heals mysteriously fast, by the by) before he comes up the rabbit hole, recuperates, and heads back down. The second time around, he takes out the janitor’s horrific father while he’s alone in a graveyard and walks away easily, considering the lack of powerful investigation tools in the 1950s. George holes up in Miami for a time, but pisses off a mob boss when he wins too much money in bets that Al had made previously, making him the benefactor of his thick wad of cash. He finds out later that his house was burned down, but that leads to a certain problem with the book’s real villain: time. As he repeatedly intones, the past harmonizes (repeats itself), the past is obdurate (refuses to move). He finds himself out of situations on “hunch think”, but it’s sadly missing when it’s not convenient for the drama of the story. An almost romantic amount of mayhem prevents him from preventing Kennedy’s death near the end of the book (no, that’s not the end), which seems odd considering the book tries its best to be a fictional drama. He uses reverse deus ex machinas and other razor-thin contrivances to humble his hero and make a big hassle out of his time travel. Again, a wink and a nod to his theme.
And what a boring fictional drama it is. George lands in Dallas and immediately hates it, retreating to the town of Jodie, three hours down the road. It’s there that he becomes a legendary substitute, later full-time teacher, meets the best friends in his life (no one’s waiting for him in 2011) and falls in love with a tall, blonde Georgia peach. George/Jake basically gives up all of that as summer rolls around to surveil Lee Harvey Oswald and his family. It’s at this point, about 55% of the way through by the status on my Kindle app, that you need some coffee because the pace grinds to a halt as he sits and slowly watches real things happening. Everything here is fictionalized, but watching reality be reality is an exercise in patience. You really want George to go back to his lover.
His romance with Sadie, that tall blond virgin from Georgia, doesn’t even build up much emotionally because all they do is lie around and have sex for half the book. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s hard enough to relate to George’s shallow persona and motives when his secondary passion in this era is just frolicking with a beautiful woman. I don’t need to mention the crazy ex-husband, but that happens.
Tick, tick, tick
Despite these, I kept flipping pages, but certainly much faster when the fiction was laid on a bit thicker. Kennedy’s assassination was a tragic event in American history, but reading 11/22/63, you realize that it would be a lot of work to change the past in such a way that would really impact it. It makes sense, but it’s demoralizing. I know you were planning on using that DeLorean for good, but it can only be bad, bad, bad. I honestly learned a lot about Oswald and King makes no dance out of addressing the conspiracy theories of the Kennedy assassination. He conveniently takes George out of major parts Oswald’s life while Oswald rambles on like a rollercoaster on a fixed track. At parts, 11/22/63 just doesn’t mend its fiction and its fact, despite King’s best efforts. The parts he researched straight out of history books and personal visits to Dallas are sometimes jaggedly matched with Jake’s narrative, ghost written from King’s own experiences.
It’s an interesting trip and there’s plenty that will stick around after the 20-some odd hours I took reading it, but when I was in it, I was in it, and now that I’m done, I can’t see myself going through it again. King’s style kept me pushing forward, but the substance weighed down on the verdict.