Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

At the end of 2011, I was surprised to see Stephen King’s latest book 11/22/63 on a number of “Best of the Year” lists. And not just best “Horror” or best “genre” type of lists – but honest-to-goodness “Best of the Year” for literary fiction lists.

That sort of praise has been hard to come by for King, who despite his enormous popularity is often dismissed as not a “real” writer because he produces a lot of horror books. Coupled with that. I know that a lot of readers out there don’t like horror and might normally ignore King’s offerings. Hopefully, this book’s positive reception will help some readers look past their preconceptions.

Because 11/22/63 is a damn fine book.

From the title, it’s not hard to guess that the story revolves around the assassination of President John Kennedy. In it, a school teacher named Jake Epping has the chance to return to the past and is convinced that he could make a better “today” by changing the past – namely, preventing Lee Harvey Oswald from killing the president.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

There are, of course, a couple of hurdles. First, Jake needs to be convinced a friend (who’s dying or he would have done it himself) that time travel is possible and that events can be altered for the better. Another is that this particular time-warp-rabbit-hole goes back to a specific day in 1958, more than five years before the assassination.

One standard character in King’s universes is the person with an obsession. And here, King smartly mixes it up by making Jake (and his past-persona George) less certain that the goal can and should be attained. But Jake has five years to figure it out, right some other wrongs, determine if Oswald acted alone, and if so, stop him. And as it turns out that the past might not like being altered…

11/22/63 was meticulously researched and that comes out in all the tiny details within, which gives the past an almost tangible feel. There is a great nostalgia in the writing that reminds you (whether it’s true or not) that the sky was cleaner, the food tasted better and people were more honorable. Actually, that’s not always necessarily true – King makes a point to contrast the sepia-tinted feel with splotches of the very real and ugly racism and sexism of those days.

In the end, like all of us, Jake is forced to make choices. Choices about people and life and love without knowing what effect those choices will have on our – or anyone else’s – futures.

There was a time in my life when I gave up on King. Several of his bloated books of the 1980s really turned me off and I thought the thing he needed most in the world was an editor with some cajones. Then, maybe 10 or 12 years ago, I tried The Green Mile and loved it. Since then, I’ve read most of his recent works (though the thick books still make me wary) and liked them. Of all his stories, this one reminds me most of The Green Mile, and to me, that’s a good thing. I think King aficionados will very much enjoy this book and if you’re one of those who’s stayed away from King and are looking for an introduction, 11/22/63 would be a great place to start.

Four stars out of five.

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33 thoughts on “Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

  1. I need to start reading this immediately! There are so many King books that I absolutely LOVE. And there are a few that I really don’t like at all.
    My favorites are The Dead Zone. The Stand. Insomnia. The Green Mile. Hearts in Atlantis. Dreamcatcher.
    I’m going to get this one right away!

  2. I too was a huge King fan in the 80′s and early 90′s and I haven’t read anything from him in close to 20 years until now. I’m about halfway through right now and I’m loving it. The first thing I noticed was the writing just felt comfortable, so I was drawn in to the story right away. I really like the how he handles the time travel premise and the past that doesn’t like to be changed. I’m looking forward to the ending and I’m already planning on picking up another of his books soon.

    • grey — I really enjoyed this one, though I’ve realized that I like his short fiction maybe more than his novels. I loved “Full Dark, No Stars” — a set of novellas. Great stuff.

  3. I’ve had a similar relationship with King. I loved It and The (unexpurgated) Stand and those before it. Then there were some big disappointments (Tommyknockers, e.g.). Recently, a friend gave me Bag of Bones, which I loved. Then I devoured Duma Key (the book, not the island). With 11/22/63, he has hit a home run.
    Two things in particular you mentioned: the meticulous research, and that this isn’t horror. God is in the details, as someone said, and he has them aplenty. Also, unlike any other King work, I would give this one to my parents to read.
    Excellent book, well-reviewed.

  4. I stopped reading when I figured out this was a book review. I haven’t read this one yet so I didn’t want a spoiler.

    Stephen King is one of my favorite authors because he is a storyteller in the best sense of the word. I don’t find his writing particularly scary or horror-based. I like how he develops characters and draws you in to a world that is similar yet different than your own. He rocks. Thanks for the incentive to go out and buy this book today and not wait for it to show up in a used book store…which is what I normally do. :-)

  5. Thanks for this review, Steve. My partner is obsessed with the Kennedy story and he’d like this. I wonder if I should give King another try. I read his “bloated” (good description) horror books but never Green Mile or the other praised ones. I found his writing to be a bit dry but this one sounds good.

    • Amelie — if your partner is interested in Kennedy, this would be a really interesting vision, I think. Looking back, I actually think some of his more recent writing has been better than the blockbusters that made him famous.

  6. You know which ones I like to read when I am in a weird mood? Desperation and Needful Things.
    The violence is so crazy and over the top that I just have to laugh.
    I enjoyed Duma Key, too. And Under the Dome, although with both of those I felt he could have wrapped things up more tidily about 200 pages earlier.

  7. Yes to everything you said. I thought his view of the late 50′s/early 60′s was a little too rosy, especially when Jake got to Texas, but I can forgive much when it comes to Steve.

  8. Loved this one!!! It really did me in at the end, though. And I’m also a fan of his more “bloated” books–The Stand and It are two of my favorites. The only books I haven’t been thrilled with, honestly, are the Bachman books I’ve read (Thinner and The Running Man). Have you read those? What did you think of them?

    • Oh — and yes, I read the Bachman books. Wasn’t THE LONG WALK one of the those? I think that was the best one by far. And I think Suzanne Collins owes more than a little of her success to it. THINNER seemed like a one-note idea that probably would have been a better short story than novella.

      • I think you’re thinking of The Running Man (re: Suzanne Collins) but I think The Long Walk was Bachman as well. Thinner freaked me out quite a bit, but not in a good way, you know? It was one of the ones I put down and thought, “Good thing I never have to read that again!” Except now I do, since I have to review it for my blog. Sigh.

        • Actually, I first thought of The Long Walk since it was a competition to the death using kids, but you’re right, there are also elements of The Running Man in The Hunger Games as well.

          • Ah, gotcha. I haven’t read The Long Walk yet, but I have read The Running Man, and I could have sworn I just read a post about how it influenced The Hunger Games. But maybe I’m getting them confused again…

  9. Pingback: Book Review: #12 – 11/22/63 By Stephen King (audio) | Let's eat Grandpa!

  10. I’ve never been a King fan but loved this book. I just reviewed it on my blog as well, and my only complaint was that it is probably a hundred or so pages too long.

  11. Pingback: 2012 Favorites: Books | Stevil

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