Saturday, January 16, 2016

Stephen King's Novel 11/22/63: A Book Review

I think the last Stephen King novel I read was The Stand, first published in 1978. That's probably not true, now that I think about it. It was probably Firestarter which came out in 1980.

I stopped reading King after that. His books were too long, they tended to plod along, the characters were all depressing, his towns were always depressing, and all his stories seemed to end badly.

As I recall, King's novel The Dead Zone was about a man who, after getting in an auto accident and going into a coma, awakens with the ability to see a person's future just by touching them. This story too was about a man who tried to change the future, in this instance, by assassinating another man who was destined to be elected President and start a nuclear war.

So it's possible that King was mining some of his old material when he wrote 11/22/63: A Novel. Maybe so, but it's a lot more complex a novel than his previous works, at least as far as I know since I stopped reading him over 35 years ago. This, I think, is because this time King tackled one of the most famous events in American history: the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

King himself says that the idea of writing this story first came to him in 1972, the year I graduated high school, but he didn't think he had the "chops" back then to do credit to a novel of such scope, plus the research demands were formidable.

By the end of the first decade of the 21st century that was no longer true, and Jake Epping's story was told.

I would never have known about this novel except for a chance discovery on social media of an upcoming six-part television series on hulu based on King's book. Reading the premise fascinated me and, finding a copy of the novel at my local public library, I couldn't resist giving it a whirl.

I was dismayed that this tome was over 800 pages long. I don't have a lot of time for discretionary reading, and even though I read somewhat faster than the average person, it would still take a while to work my way through the whole thing.

Fortunately, it's a page turner.

Yes, especially the town of Derry, Maine was horribly depressing and even unrealistically grim. The communities King develops tend to have personalities of their own, as if they were living (and often evil) beings. Derry: bad. Jodie, Texas: good. Dallas: really bad, but not as downright creepy as Derry.

I liked Jake Epping. He was a borderline normal human being, a recently divorced high school teacher who seems emotionally closed, but only because he's not very emotionally expressive.

Jake got into this mess because he was teaching an adult ed class, one of the students was the high school janitor who was endearing, walked with a limp, and had an acquired brain injury. Harry writes an essay for Jake's class that tells about the night that changed his life, the night when his drunken father attacked his mother, siblings, and Harry with a hammer and killed everyone except Harry. Harry lived, but not without severe consequences.

Jake showed uncommon compassion for Harry and his tragedy but there was nothing he could do about it. After all, you can't change the past...


But another resident of Jake's little community, Al Templeton, the owner of a local diner that served the world's best and most inexpensive hamburgers, had a secret. At the back of the restaurant's storeroom was a sort of "rabbit hole," a tesseract, an invisible doorway that lead to a single destination: September 9, 1958 at 11:58 a.m. You can go back to that moment in time, stay as long as you want, even years, then step back through to 2011 and you'd only have been gone exactly 2 minutes. Step back again, and it's September 9th all over again and whatever you changed on your previous trip was reset. It's as if you'd never gone through before (well, not exactly, but Jake doesn't figure that out until the end of the novel).

It's doubtful Al would have shared this secret with anyone, but another one of his secrets got in the way. You see, the "distance" between 9/9/58 and 11/22/63 is just over five years. Al had this crazy idea that he could save the life of John F. Kennedy, prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from ever carrying out the assassination.

The problem is, toward the end of the five-year journey, Al got cancer.

So he came back to 2011 and told the only man he thought he could trust, the only man young enough (mid-30), healthy enough, and unattached (Jake was recently divorced from his alcoholic wife and they had no children...well, he had a cat), and shared not only his secrets, but all his research (King's research, actually) on Oswald and associates with him, charging Jake with Al's original mission: save JFK at all costs.


Because Al believed that had JFK lived, he would have changed our nation for the better, maybe stopped our involvement in the Vietnam war, saving the lives of countless young men. Of course no one would know how history would play out until (or unless) Kennedy was saved.

A few things.

There's a yellow card man or a red card man or some other color card man who is always waiting near the "time portal" (for lack of a better term) in 1958. He's a wino, probably homeless, dirty, panhandling for money to buy more booze. But he's also connected to the portal somehow, as if he knows something, as if he can tell where Al was from during his trips, or where Jake came from.

The color of the card he wears in the brim of his hat keeps changing, indicating "something". On the day when Jake Epping finally accepts the task of stopping Oswald kill Kennedy, when he encounters the wino in 1958, the card is black and the man had cut his own throat and bled to death.

Another thing. Time doesn't like to be messed with. As long as you didn't actually try to make changes in history, time left you alone (more or less). But when you planned to make a change, time pushed back. You could still exert enough energy to overcome the resistance, but the bigger the change, the bigger the push back.

When Jake decided to save Harry's family from being murdered and prevent Harry's brain injury, the first time, he suffered through severe stomach flu, an attempt on his life by someone else who had a grudge against Harry's father, and he was nearly killed by Harry's Dad himself. Oh sure, he saved Harry, but his Mom still got a broken arm out of the deal, and Harry's brother still died (his sister lived, though).

The second attempt went much better, but Jake had taken precautions against the push back and amazingly, they worked.

But there was no going back. Rather than let the cancer kill him, Al had taken an overdose. Once his death had been reported, his diner would be sold, torn down, and some sort of mega-store would be built on its grave...

...and the tesseract would burst like a soap bubble and Kennedy's assassination would once again be reduced to a subject for history classes. Jake had only days, probably just hours, to step through the rabbit hole one more time and begin his journey through the long five years until November 22, 1963.

The majority of the novel chronicles Epping's living through the late 1950s and early 1960s as George Amberson (and King's portrayal of even the tiniest details of living in America during that time period were exquisite), would-be novelist, substitute teacher, and occasional gambler (like Marty in the second "Back to the Future" movie, Jake had been armed with the results of all the major sporting events, especially the upsets, as a means of making some ready cash), his adventures, first in Maine, then in Florida, and finally in Texas as he, acting on all of Al's research, slowly builds toward the day when he'd attempt to stop one of history's most famous assassinations.

Reading 11/22/63 was like watching one very long multi-car collision...horrible and yet fascinating. People suffered so terribly, and yet, I absolutely needed to know how or if Jake/George was going to save the President's life.

I think the original plan was for Jake/George just to lie low for five years, live modestly, make the money last, and stop Oswald, save Kennedy, and then go back to a better and brighter 2011.

But a man has to do something for five years.

Jake/George isn't a trained time traveler like you'd see in other stories. He has a few facts to go by, but unprepared, how does a man from the 21st century fit in at a time when computers filled a room, manned space exploration was in its infancy, and married couples in TV sitcoms still slept in separate beds?

But in many ways, this isn't really a story about time travel. It's like most of King's novels, about an ordinary person in a highly unusual circumstance, fighting against time itself, as if time had a life of its own, as if time was trying to kill Jake, in order to do what he thought was good, perhaps the greatest good in history.

But history fought back.

Jake/George falls in love, which makes things worse, not for him and not for his lovely Sadie, at least not at first, but for his mission. Time no longer has one target, Jake himself, to shoot at, now it has the woman he loves as well (and time makes them both suffer).

True to form, King introduces a small parade of insane, cruel, brutal individuals into the novel. The results are depressing and desperate, but like the aforementioned car wreck, I couldn't turn away. I found myself, having stopped reading to drive somewhere or perform some other task in mundane reality, terribly worried and wondering how I would ever find a way to stop Oswald. Yeah, I know. I started to identify with Jake/George. It got kind of personal.

Time batters and shreds Jake/George so that he ends up with only hours and then minutes to spare, rather than years, to find and stop Oswald. He does, but the consequences are disastrous. No, Jake/George, though maimed, lives, but so many other people die...

...and as it turns out, so does the future.

I waited a long time to get to this point in the novel and it's almost a let down. This isn't because of a fault in the novel, but because everything up until this moment, has been focused on killing Oswald and saving Kennedy, and in spite of time, it works.

But where do you go from here?

As it turns out, back to 2011, but again, referencing Marty McFly and his visit to the alternate 1985, it's the same town, but it's changed so much, and not for the better. Saving Kennedy doesn't save the world, it fractures reality. The green card man, a different one from the guy who committed suicide during Jake's last trip down the rabbit hole, explains it all to him.

Each trip doesn't exactly reset time. There are residual echoes from the previous trips. Each trip, and especially each change, tangles the different strings in time and if the tangles aren't stopped, existence itself is undone.

The only thing Jake can do is leave the alternate 2011, where no one has ever heard of Jake Epping and most of the world is a war zone, go back to 1958, do nothing, save no one, and then go back to his original 2011, go back to being a high school teacher, and let his scars and limp remind him that no one attempts to change history unchallenged.

Jake resisted. He could still save his beloved Sadie, Sadie who died trying to stop Oswald. Sadie who was almost killed and permanently scarred by an insane ex-husband (a classic King character), Sadie who was the only woman Jake really loved.

All he has to do is risk the very fabric of existence.

The novel was published in 2011, so there's plenty of information on the web that explains the ending, how King resolved the dilemma. Or you could avoid the novel altogether and watch the mini-series on hulu next month.

I'll leave that to you.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and almost considered reading it again. But that would feel too much like Jake's failed first trip through the tesseract, and then him going through again to replay history with a different outcome (besides, I've got a headache). Maybe a trip down the rabbit hole will let you, with great effort, change history, but King's novel will always begin and end exactly the same way.

The ending is semi-happy. At least King gave us that much.