Thursday, December 15, 2011
Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King
First off, let me say I'm not, normally, a reader of Stephen King's books - but having said that - how could I resist this one? November 22, 1963 is a day that is burned in my subconscious, the day a puny little nobody murdered the President of the United States. The Kennedy assassination still lives in the memory of those of us of a certain age and always will. How could it not? In so many ways, it was the end of our country's innocence.
When I heard that King had devised a plot in which a time traveler goes back and tries to 'fix things' by stopping Lee Harvey Oswald in that odious room in that depressing School Book Depository building in 1963 Dallas, my immediate thought was: why didn't someone think of this sooner?
The book is long - 842 pages and probably didn't need to be. BUT, it reads quickly. The typeface is a handy size (adding to the page count) and there's nothing in here that requires heavy duty lifting when it comes to ideas or plot devices. It is simply an enjoyable, fast-paced, thrilling read which also happens to be very well written.
The main genius, I think, of King's device is to keep us guessing for most of the book. Will his 'hero' Jake Epping aka George Amberson, of Lisbon Falls, Maine, get to Oswald in time? Has he finessed it too finely? Time works against George in many obstructive ways. As King reminds us, "...the past is obdurate." The past wants to stay as is - it will put up road blocks to that end. And boy does it. As 11/22/63 gets closer and closer, you can feel time slipping away as George is given more and more hurdles to overcome.
Turns out that the time travel device will only set George down in the past of 1958. So he has to patiently wait for 1963 to come around again to act. In the meantime, he begins setting some things right as best he can - saving the lives of a family which had been slaughtered by their murderous drunk of a father. Saving a girl from life-long paralysis. Small (in the great scheme of things) seeming episodes which any one of us might have tackled given the time.
When George finally gets to Texas and settles in to wait his chance, he takes work as a substitute teacher and falls in love with Sadie Dunhill, a fellow teacher with a rather strange marriage in her past. It is this love which, aside from his quest to stop an assassin, becomes the guiding light of George's life.
Time travel is a tricky thing - it's best not to interfere with too much. (Haven't we been told that over and over?) Events can turn on a dime. 'The butterfly effect..." is an idea which, unfortunately for George, might be more than theory. (If a butterfly flaps its wings somewhere, eventually it means a monsoon somewhere else...or words to that effect.)
This is an amazingly accomplished story. The book of a master writer at the top of his game. Not only was I caught up in George Amberson's odyssey to set things right, but I was strangely fascinated by the view King gives us into the sordid life of Lee Harvey Oswald, the ultimate sad sack loser who, with a mail order rifle, still managed to change history.
King makes a familiar story (at least for those of us who lived through it the first time) seem new. The book builds in breakneck excitement until each page is flying by as George and Sadie must battle against all sorts of odds (some of them quite horrible) to save a President.
Will they succeed?
Will time cooperate?
Will we avert the Vietnam war?
Will our future be better for it?
Read the book and see.
11/22/63 is really quite a special experience.