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.
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.