Thursday, January 05, 2012

11-22-63: The Genius of Stephen King

Everybody who was alive and of reasonable age in November of 1963 remembers where they were when they got the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. For some reason we had the day off from school that day and my friend Sue and I walked to a nearby neighborhood market (back in the days when they had neighborhood markets instead of convenience stores) to get popsicles and we were walking home when we encountered Tilly, our neighbor's housekeeper. She was walking home from work and she was crying. We liked Tilly, she was always nice to us, and we asked what the matter was. She said, “Someone shot the President.” Sue and I were shocked – we didn't know that could happen. We thought that sort of thing only happened in history books like to President Lincoln.

When I got to my house my Mom was standing at the kitchen sink doing something and when she turned around tears were running down her face. We were Catholics, of course, and we loved out Catholic president. We didn't believe such a thing could happen in our country.

Over the years I've read books and watched documentaries about what happened that day in Dallas. It's hard to know what might or might not be true. But it takes a genius like Stephen King to actually envision what might have happened so brilliantly and to write a book like 11/22/63. It's a big book and, if you are looking for a book about JFK look elsewhere, but this is a wonderful book for a lot of reasons.

The story starts out in Maine when Jake Epping, a high school English teacher, gets suckered into a plan by an old friend who is about to die. His friend, who owns a diner famous for its cheap and delicious burgers, reveals that he has discovered a “portal” through which it is possible to slip back in time to a specific time and place in 1957 and for years he has been experimenting with time travel doing research for his grand plan, to stop the assassination of JFK. He knows that to do this he will have to be able to support himself for the intervening years which he intends to do through gambling on various events benefiting by the knowledge he gains in the future. But now cancer has changed everything and he can no longer stop the assassination so he begs Jake to do it for him.

As the story unfolds it is Jake who is the focus of the story, not JFK. Jake is actually less interested in stopping Lee Harvey Oswald than he is in righting a terrible wrong to a local man – a former student – who, as a boy, had witnessed his crazy father slaughter his entire family. Jake wants to go back and stop the slaughter above all.

King's capacity to envision the physics of time-travel is just stunning. In his interpretation the past is “obdurate” – it resists any attempts to be changed and the more significant the change the more powerfully it resists. This provides the protagonist, Jake, with a monstrously powerful antagonist – time itself. Jake, after preventing the slaughter of his friend's family, has to stay in the past, travel to Texas, and spend his time observing Lee Harvey Oswald. Along the way he makes wonderful friends, changes the lives of some young people, and falls hopelessly in love with Sadie, the librarian at the high school he teaches at while waiting to stop Oswald. The juxtaposition of 21st century Jake in a 1950-60's world is brilliant. He encounters challenges no one could have imagined – his biggest fight with Sadie comes when she hears him unconsciously singing the lyrics to the Rolling Stone's Honky-Tonk Woman and thinks he is depraved for even thinking about such things.

Once the mission is accomplished and Jake returns to 2011 the world he enters is a world only Stephen King could have created. it is dark and terrifying and all because JFK lived and history went in a different direction.

This is utterly masterful story-telling. Delicious 1950's nostalgia, gob-smacking physics, shocking alternative history, and, above all, an absolutely beautiful love story. The last scene of the book is one of the most beautiful I ever recall reading. Bravo, Mr. King, bravo!

Thanks for reading!  

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