Friday, April 13, 2012

11/22/63 by Stephen King

By Stephen King

Jake Epping, the star of our show, is a high school English teacher and sometime adult educator in the small town of Lisbon Falls, Maine. Recently divorced from an alcoholic wife, and having befriended an older gentleman who survived a childhood tragedy, Jake, like all of us at some point, wishes that he could go back in time and right a few wrongs.

He actually gets that chance when his longtime acquaintance Al Templeton invites him into the pantry of the local eatery that he owns. There, amidst the canned goods and supplies, exists a portal into the past: September 9, 1958, to be precise. At exactly 11:58 A.M.

Al has grown old and sickly in the 24 hours since Jake last saw him, the result of living for multiple years in the past. He has a plan, but he requires Jake's help in pulling it off.

For those who don't know, November 22, 1963 was the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. According to Al's theory, if one were to prevent the assassination, it would send ripples through time, changing our world for the better. So convincing is his argument that Jake (eventually) agrees.

There are some hard-thought rules to the time travel at play here. Stepping through the portal always lands you at the exact same location in time, and when you return to your timeline, it is exactly two minutes later than when you left, and any changes you made in the past are evident. However, if you go back to the past again, arriving at September 9, 1958 at 11:58 A.M., you trigger a reset, and any changes previously made have been completely undone. This affords one the luxury of a learning curve, but it also means that Jake (taking on a new identity as George Amberson) must live in the past for more than five years just to get to the event he is attempting to prevent. If he messes up and requires a reset, it's going to cost him an additional five years.

As Jake tracks the comings and goings of would-be presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, he struggles to eliminate any doubt as to whether he acted alone--or if he even acted, period. Conspiracy theories regarding his involvement have flourished since day one, and it would be criminal to murder this man in cold blood, only to have one of them turn out to be correct. Unraveling the past is a long and arduous process--hence the massive 850-page count--especially when the past doesn't want to be unraveled, much less altered. The past is obdurate, says King. It's stubborn, and when you fight the future, it fights back.

It's not all about JFK. In the five years he has to kill, Jake sets up a life of his own, changing things for the better in a few smaller ways as he goes. He gets a job, he falls in love, and he swing dances. A lot. So much, in fact, that it becomes a little ridiculous at times, and we attempt to decipher just why on Earth Stephen King deems it so significant each and every time. There are a lot of mysteries in this book, but that's one I was never able to crack.

Part science fiction, part historical narrative, this is definitely a different kind of beast for King. It's obviously thoroughly researched to the last detail--although he admits tinkering with a thing or two for the story's sake--and many of the characters ring strikingly true to life because of it, specifically Oswald and his clan. You'll hate him just as much as ever, but here he seems like a genuine villain instead of an abstract thing.

Another departure from the Stephen King oeuvre is the use of real-life locations. It starts off in the very-real Lisbon Falls, and comes to a close in the very-real Dallas. The Dallas-of-the-past is painted in a very unflattering light, although that's not to say it's an unfair light. Dallas was a big city with a lot of small town mentality, the wild west all mobbed up. It's a nice place to read about, but I sure wouldn't want to live there.

Don't worry, though. King has not forgotten his fictional small towns. A large chunk of the story takes place in a little borough called Jodie, Texas, and for the fans there is even a stopover in Derry, Maine, where Jake feels the power of Pennywise the clown and teaches a few of the river rat It kids how to--what else?--swing dance.

Kings fictional universal is a shared one, each of his stories all existing within each other--as evidenced by the It connection noted above. Even his apocalyptic The Stand and his otherworldly Dark Tower series work within the same framework, existing behind this universe in an alternate reality. As his realities stack atop each other, it should not be surprising that his timelines do too--however some of the explanations of this given by the so-called Yellow Card Man seem clunky and clumsy, and not at all clear. Doc Brown explained the dangers of time travel and creating paradoxes much more succinctly to Marty McFly without all this talk about "bubbles" and alcoholism.

Speaking of pop cultural time travel references, people of a certain age won't be able to read this book without remembering that epic episode of Quantum Leap revolving around the Kennedy assassination. I like to think that King knew this, and purposely named Jake's "guide on this journey" Al.

In the end, a very enjoyable and fast-paced read. Or at least as fast as it's running length will allow. It's widely known that King at times "over writes", but it's also widely accepted. If you're a fan, you've come to expect and even appreciate his loquaciousness. He's put in enough time in this business that he can write what and how he wants to. And most of the time, I for one, am more than happy to oblige him.


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