The novel 11/22/63 tells the story of Jake Epping, a (soon to be time traveling) high school English teacher (the job and life that Stephen King himself occupied before his whirlwind success started with the publication of Carrie in the late 70s) from Lisbon Falls, Maine, recently divorced, who is also teaching an adult GED preparation class in the evenings, after school. One of his pupils in that class is his own high school’s janitor, Harry Dunning, or ‘Hoptoad Harry’ as the kids have cruelly called him since time immemorial as it seems, due to his very pronounced limp. One of Mr. Epping’s assignments to his evening GED class is an essay to be written about ‘the day that changed your life forever’. Harry Dunning’s essay contained undoubtedly the worst prose and sloppiest grammar of the bunch, but still packed the most emotional punch. It tells the sordid tale, that I will not spoil, of how Harry came to acquire his present day limp, back in a very ugly incident from his childhood in 1950s Derry, Maine. From the emotional impact this essay has on Mr. Epping, Harry and Jake get to be friends and Jake comes to admire Harry for all that he has overcome in his life. Together they frequent a local establishment known as Al’s Diner, home of the world famous “Fatburger” or “Catburger” as the locals have taken to calling it, for the unusually low price of said burger. The secret of that burger, leads to the time travel element of the story. Al Templeton, accidentally, as we’re told, discovered a time portal back to the world of 1958 ( September 9, 1958, at 11:58 a.m. to be exact) that happens to be sitting right smack dab in the middle of his meat freezer. Darn the luck, right?
It has to be said that, time travel stories are always tricky to get right. In general, they open up a whole lot of little rabbit holes for the reader’s mind to go down, and leave too many lingering questions, threads and paradoxes, that if improperly handled can easily unravel and collapse the entire story into a tangled and muddled mess. To his credit Stephen King has cleverly sidestepped many of these issues in 11/22/63, but he has done so by tackling them in a head on approach. It’s not without its chunkiness, as all time travel stories have some sort of, but for me, it worked well enough for me to suspend my disbelief and go along the ride that King wished to take me.
Here’s how it all works. The time portal operates both ways, but no matter how long you stay on the side of the portal that starts you out in September 1958, when you come back, you find you’ve only been gone for about two minutes in the present, although, if you stay gone for ten or twenty years, you will have aged ten or twenty years when you return. Still, you can bring back anything you want from the past, and even take it back with you on your next trip. It would seem to violate a fundamental law of physics with the same object occupying the same space, but that apparently has no effect here, as Al Templeton goes back time and time again, to buy the same beef patties, at the same price, from the same people (with whom he has the same conversation), with the same exact bills, over and over again. Every trip is a reset. If you go back in the past and royally screw things up, all you have to do is make a quick trip back through the time portal, then back in, back out, and whalla, everything is as it was. And so with that, many of the usual paradoxes and other aforementioned rabbit holes are thankfully gotten out of the way very early on in the story.
There is one person on the 1958 side of the portal, who, Al thinks, perhaps because of his closeness to the portal suspects something strange is up. He is called the Yellow Card Man, because of the yellow card placed in his hat band. But, Al finds, if you give him a few nickels for booze, he is more than happy to leave you be and continue on his merry way.
After a while Al, who’s Diner has been limping along for many years now, and is set to be bought out be L.L Bean Inc. soon, decides to use the portal to accomplish something loftier than just buying top market Grade A meat at bottom dollar prices. He decides after much soul searching, that he was allowed to discovere this portal because he is supposed to intervene in what was the seminal historical event of his, and many other people’s lives, the moment that in his mind changed everything, without which, we might never have had to endure that dreadful war in Vietnam, the Race Riots, or many other unfortunate events that followed it. Stop this one event, and you can save millions of lives perhaps, including those of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, John Lennon etc… So the narrative in his mind goes, and, he (through King’s pen) does a fine job of making a logical case for it all. So with that he decides to do a little time traveling detective work. This will be a mission that will involve spending several years in this world of yesteryear, and involve traveling halfway across the country to stop a madman from putting a bullet in the head of one John F. Kennedy.
While all this is going on back in the past however, Jake Epping, noticing only the passing of a few weeks worth of time is starting to worry for his friend Al, who appears to be degenerating at a rapid pace, as if he has aged decades in mere days. Al, his health failing him, is forced to abandon the Kennedy mission, and his only hope now is to convince Jake Epping to take it up in his stead. If he chooses to accept, he will be aided by the copious amounts of notes and research that Al did during his time on the case. For an extra bit of motivation, Jake knows, if he goes on this journey, he can also perhaps, right the wrongs visited upon his friend Harry Dunning.
And with that you can probably tell that there are several big leaps of faith made and liberties taken to get the characters back into the times and places they need to be, and doing the things the author needs them to do for the purpose of this story. But in the hands of King here I didn’t feel the rope of the obligatory storyline dragging me towards its inevitable plot points. I was drug along all the same, but I was coerced into taking the trip willingly, even if I could see the invisible rope all the same, just as Jake Epping, when he finally decides to accept his friend’s proposition to take on this mission, does so knowing the ridiculousness of it all, but he is still swept up along the way by the overall richness of life in the 50s. Just King’s description of a mere root beer float from 1958 has me yearning to find one of these portals to leap through myself.
Of course, Jake finally agrees to this journey, or this book would have been a much shorter, and, more abruptly humorous one. Back in the 50s he assumes the name of one George Amberson, a traveling salesman. He will stay around Main, including a visit to Derry to intervene on behalf of the then childhood version of Harry Dunning, and then set off, in an ambling sort of way across the south, finally to Texas, where the final bulk of the book takes place. All along the way will be the dual narrative, of the hunt for Oswald, and of Jake/George’s settling into his newfound life. He becomes a teacher, again, in a small town just outside of Dallas, and develops many friendships and other lasting relationships in that town.
As is pointed out time and time again in this story, the past is obdurate. It doesn’t want to change. It in fact, actively fights against. Jake gets severe cramps when time itself it seems senses him trying to inflict change upon it. Minor change can be dealt with without much to-do, but when he starts trying to alter the course of people’s lives in bigger ways, that’s when fate or whatever you wish to call it steps in. Throughout the book, which I am ever fearful of spoiling too much, Jake will develop attachments to new people, and places. He will begin a new life a world without cell phones and all the other modern distractions, and he will be forced to choose between continuing on the dangerous mission he embarked upon, or giving in and just embracing the new life, new love, and new world he finds himself in.
One of the books’ many triumphs was its ability to weave the fictional characters and the historical ones together so effortlessly. King masterfully managed to build Lee Harvey Oswald as a three dimensional character, while still out of necessity, keeping him mostly in the shadows of overheard conversations, and his various movements. He is to this book as the great white is to Jaws, but far from being a noble beast, he is seen as an insecure young man, with a deep inferiority complex. First he has to find out if the alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald actually committed this act, then, whether he acted alone or under the direction of others. King definitely put in the hours doing his research here, and while his conclusions might not much yours on what actually happened in Dallas that fateful day, he at the very least constructs a very respectable effort, and an easy to follow narrative that takes you along step for step introducing you to various historical characters that were connected in someway to Oswald at the time
Stephen King has a very hit and miss track record with me for the ways his novels end. To me he did a solid job here of weaving through the three or four different parts of this, very long book. Without spoiling anything, I will say the ending was both satisfying and unsatisfying. I can’t really divulge more than that without giving away details that would risk ruining it for future readers. I will say though, for me, of the two main plots, the first one being the bigger story of Kennedy and the stopping (or not stopping) his being killed in Dallas on that November morning, in the end left me feeling more than a little deflated, but the personal story of Jake Epping, or George Amberson as he goes by in the land of yore, and his journey left me on a much better and more sanguine note.
So you see, The Kennedy assassination while a huge piece of the novel that keeps the story ever moving forward, is not the real focus so much as just getting the chance to be a first hand witness to history. When Jake Epping steps foot into the 1958 version of his hometown, he immediately becomes engrossed in his surroundings. While reading this novel I felt I was on a very pleasant and welcoming as well as occasionally suspenseful and heartening journey through the America of the late 1950’s and early 1960s. These were not yet the true 60s that they would later be remembered for so much as a continuation of the aforementioned 50s. No work of recent fiction, aside from the television show ‘Mad Men’ has made me feel more convinced that I was actually there in that time period of mid twentieth century America, with the smell of cigarette smoke lingering in the air, the sound of early Rock N’ Roll on the radio, the taste of the drive in burgers, and the aroma of hot apple pies cooling on open window slits, that wide openness of the post war, but pre-Beatles country, full of life and energy and the feeling almost everywhere of unimaginable opportunity and an unbounded sense of optimism and hope for a better tomorrow.
11/22/63 gets a three out of five: GOOD.