The Short Version: Jake Epping is an average thirty-something teacher in rural Maine in 2011. However, after finding a ‘rabbit-hole’ in time, he ends up back in 1958 with the mission of stopping Lee Harvey Oswald from killing President Kennedy. Except the past doesn’t want to be changed – and it will throw everything it can, including a lovely Texas librarian, in his way to stop him from reaching his goal. Because despite his best intentions, history might be just fine as it is.
The Review: I’ve been a loyal reader of Stephen King since The Dark Tower series came to a conclusion in the early 2000s. After The Dark Tower, I’ve loyally picked up Uncle Stevie’s newest read right after publication: Cell, Lisey’s Story, Duma Key, Under the Dome. There’s something about reading a new Stephen King that also connects with coming back to North Avenue. So, I held off on getting 11/22/63 until just before Thanksgiving and decided that I would read that this year (instead of attempting to power through three or four shorter novels).
I should say that I love King’s older works – but there’s something special about his 21st century novels. (ed. note: okay, I haven’t read Dreamcatcher or From A Buick 8 but other than that…) There’s something mature about them, something that makes them truly impressive achievements in American letters. And that’s not just because they’re almost all 800+ pages. They deal with larger issues, certainly, and they have less of a definite outcome regarding those issues. Sure, there’s a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ that you discover by the end of the story but the shadings are so wonderfully… well, shaded that you can interpret things in so many ways. These novels make you think so much more than his older novels, which made you think but also mostly just scared you to death.
11/22/63 is, without doubt, King’s most grown-up novel. It’s asking a big question, one that we’re asking more and more as our society gets bleaker by the day – and as the fiftieth anniversary looms: what would’ve happened if President Kennedy hadn’t been shot in Dallas? Of course, the answer to that question doesn’t come until the last hundred pages of the book (and the answer King presents is, not surprisingly, an unhappy one). The book isn’t about the answer but about the journey to it. It’s about sending someone from today’s polarized, antagonistic society back into a time that we have a serious bit of nostalgia for. Just look at Mad Men, all of those other shows about the early 60s that we’re seeing on TV (although I think those have been cancelled). And it’s a bit of a love letter from King to that era – but also a love letter from our witty Uncle Stevie, reminding us that there were still some pretty terrible things in that era. Segregation and spousal abuse right there at the top – but pollution, less regulation, the Cold War. There’s a great sequence where Jake is the only one not freaking out about the Cuban Missile Crisis… and then he realizes that, back then, there wasn’t a certain outcome. We take these moments from history as fact, as “they couldn’t’ve happened any other way” – and while that may be true, when you’re living in the moment it undoubtedly doesn’t feel like that. It was such a wonderful way to critique, examine, and re-live a moment all at once.
I will say this: the book is a bit too long. The ‘plot’ itself is almost forgotten about at points as Jake becomes a part of Jodie, Texas – I mean, he’ll comment on it and remind himself about it and what-not but you can feel the author (King, not Jake – it becomes clear as the book goes on that Jake has written this book as a sort of diary) letting his affinity slip to the simple story of a man-out-of-time falling in love with a comely lady in the 50s and trying to figure out how to deal with that. And it’s a lovely moment. It is something you never expected from King and it’s really quite a lovely bit of story. But the plot of killing Oswald looms over the entire thing and makes you feel, even in the nicest of moments in 1961 or whatever, that you’re just wasting time. And perhaps that’s the point – but I just didn’t love the fact that King decided the rabbit-hole would dump out 5 years before the assassination. It seemed just a bit too long.
All of that said, King has this effortless way of bringing tension to bear – and whenever Jake tries to change the past (i.e. save a life), the book is like that inexorable climb up a roller coaster: your heart speeds up and your breath catches and you feel like you’re going to burst as you reach that last moment before….
And King does a great job of bookending the novel with such moments. You get a ‘test-run’ – to see if one can change the past – and you get the actual real run at saving Kennedy. What the book really needed was a third event, in the middle, to keep the novel’s pace from slipping. Of course, it isn’t actually that much of a detraction. The thing is, King is truly a giant of American literature – English literature, World literature, Literature in general. And spending time with him is never a bore. Or maybe it can be, but I’ve yet to find it.
Rating: 5 out of 5. It’s not a horror novel, although it has those elements: the Yellow (Green, Ocre, Black, Orange) Card Man, The Jimla, the return to the ‘present’. So yeah, it’s no Duma Key or Lisey’s Story – but again, as a result, it comes off as perhaps King’s most mature and genre-smashing novel yet. I hope it lands on the Tournament of Books bracket this season. I hope it wins some major awards. Because guess what? Even if you don’t like Uncle Stevie, I think you might like this book. It’s magic.