11/22/63: A Novel
ON NOVEMBER 22, 1963, THREE SHOTS RANG OUT IN DALLAS, PRESIDENT KENNEDY DIED, AND THE WORLD CHANGED. WHAT IF YOU COULD CHANGE IT BACK?
In this brilliantly conceived tour de force, Stephen King—who has absorbed the social, political, and popular culture of his generation more imaginatively and thoroughly than any other writer—takes readers on an incredible journey into the past and the possibility of altering it.
It begins with Jake Epping, a thirty-five-year-old English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching GED classes. He asks his students to write about an event that changed their lives, and one essay blows him away—a gruesome, harrowing story about the night more than fifty years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a sledgehammer. Reading the essay is a watershed moment for Jake, his life—like Harry’s, like America’s in 1963—turning on a dime. Not much later his friend Al, who owns the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to the past, a particular day in 1958. And Al enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession—to prevent the Kennedy assassination.
So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson, in a different world of Ike and JFK and Elvis, of big American cars and sock hops and cigarette smoke everywhere. From the dank little city of Derry, Maine (where there’s Dunning business to conduct), to the warmhearted small town of Jodie, Texas, where Jake falls dangerously in love, every turn is leading eventually, of course, to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and to Dallas, where the past becomes heart-stoppingly suspenseful, and where history might not be history anymore. Time-travel has never been so believable. Or so terrifying.
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137. 11-22-63, a novel by Stephen King. American Literature 845 pages.
Is there anyone alive who hasn’t heard of Stephen King? From the Green Mile to the Shining to any of the more than sixty novels this man has written, he is a prolific author whose movies are widely read and converted into movies and television shows. I have never been a fan. My tastes to not turn to the strange side. I was surprised when my well-read colleague, Sarah Holub, brought in 11-22-63 for me to read. All she said was that it was a good book. Twenty pages into the novel, I was hooked and experiencing more reading delight than after reading 900 pages of other novels.
This is the story of Jake Epping, a high school English teacher. He receives a mysterious phone call from the owner of a diner to come over for a visit. He is surprised to note that Al, the owner of Al’s Diner, has become ill since the last time he saw him, short days ago. What Jake comes to learn is that Al has gone back in time. As a time traveler, he was gone for several years, although those of us in the present only noted his absence in minutes or hours. When he returns, he is dying of advanced lung cancer, and wants Jake to travel back into time to carry out a mission, a mission he has been unable to complete. Simply put, he wants Jake to travel into the past, and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Is Jake skeptical? You bet, as any of us would be. That is, until he takes the four small steps down the time tunnel in the storage room of the diner and pops out in September of 1958, a world that is very different from his own in 2011.
I was endeared and engaged in every line of every page. Jake has a root beer during his first short test visit, and comments on the amazing quality of a root beer with no preservatives and a large head of foam that the server scrapes off with a wooden spoon. The local boys call him daddy-o, and children end their conversations with him with a ‘yes sir’ or a thank-you, sir. Dumbfounded, he returns to Al, who is not long for this world. He wants to conduct an experiment before obligating himself to the preservation of JFK: he will prevent the brutal murder of an entire family by a drunken, enraged father. I refuse to tell you what happens.
Jake becomes George Amberson when he returns to 1958 for an extended time. He teaches English at a high school in Texas, falls in love with an unlikely lady, and gambles a little bit to earn money because, after all, he has forehand knowledge about many sporting events, and who defeats whom.
Throughout this amazing novel, King makes astute and profound observations. He suggests that the past does not like to be changed. As Jake, a.k.a George heads toward his battle with the past, he discovers that it, the past, that is, will try to stop him from changing it. The past, he learns, is obdurate. I had to look that one up. It means stubborn or willingly resistant. Perhaps that is a good feature of the past. He also discovers that the past is connected to the past. People he meets in one location at one time will be similar to other people he meets in different locations, even down to the names they have in common. George refers to this as the past harmonizing with itself. That is another concept I have found myself loving to reflect upon.
Perhaps I have loved this book so much because I was alive during the Fifties when much of it is set. I tasted root beer like Jake/George loved, and walked into rooms filled with the blue haze caused by endless numbers of people smoke cigarettes, always, everywhere. I particularly liked a reference Jake makes to a short but brilliant short story by the author Ray Bradbury entitled The Sound of Thunder. In this short tale, hunters pay big money to travel back in time to hunt the fiercest trophy imaginable: Tyrannasaurus Rex. They are warned to stay on a carefully-marked trail; moving off that trail could change the entire course of history, even so small an event as stepping on a blade of grass. Let me end by
Basically, Mr. King had me from page one. This author has such a gift for engaging the reader and drawing the reader into his story, that no matter how tense it gets or how tedious, once you start, there is just no stopping. Even though it took me 7 months to finish the book, and when I turned the last page of the book my feeling was simply, FINALLY, I really enjoyed reading it, immensely!
Approximately 850 pages long, it does try one’s patience and might better lend itself, for some readers, to being read in segments, as I read it. The book could be described as several books in one, since there are so many different themes and characters developed; these might easily be grouped into sections, severally or singularly. That said, the characters and the different themes surrounding them were developed very well and left little for the imagination. I am certain the research for the book was very intensive, although there are times when the author uses poetic license with the facts.
Because it feels like several books under one cover, it is not difficult to put it down and resume at another time, even after reading several other books. Like a soap opera, it will feel like nothing has changed in the intervening space of time. It is the mark of King’s skill, that his simplistic but incredibly creative and interesting, informative way of presenting the story, so that the plot just keeps moving along, keeps you bound to it. If you are of a certain generation that lived through the Kennedy assassination, the characters will feel real, feel like people you might even have met in the past, characters with whom you can identify, whether or not you like them or what they represent, and certainly many are characters you will have learned about, either in school or from news reports. In some way, their emotions and behavior will reach out and touch you so that each time you pick up the book, possibly after an extended pause in the reading, you might feel as if you are encountering an old friend, once again.
This is the story of Jake Epping, a schoolteacher, separated from his wife. He is befriended by Al Templeton, a janitor and the owner of the local diner which seems to have a door in the pantry that opens onto another time, a place where the time and space continuum is changed.
Jake is asked, by Al, to move back and forth in time, in order to try and rewrite history, specifically, the murder of John F. Kennedy. Along the way, he develops other pressing personal issues and problems to solve, and so the story, of necessity, moves back and forth in time with him. Sometimes the length is tedious, but most often, putting down the book for a bit will solve that problem, and the reader will be drawn back to the story to find out its conclusion, of that I am sure.
Some of the stories within the book are romantic, some violent, some tragic, and some are mysterious, but all are interesting. George Amberson, alias Jake Epping, moves from Maine to Texas, eventually, via a circuitous route created for him by Templeton, who has passed the mantle of his failed effort to stop the assassination, onto the shoulders of his created character, George Amberson. Al has tried to think of everything George will need to enable him to step into his shoes, at the appropriate time. Within the confines of the diner, the doorway to the past leads specifically to 1958. George will have five years, until the assassination takes place, to plan his stragegy and deal with how the past protects itself from interference. His road will be a long and arduous one, but he will navigate it several times, by choice, with different purposes.
As the story and its odd coincidences continue, called harmonies in the author’s terminology, some events and themes of the past will converge and intertwine with events, as George’s new life transpires, day by day, and so it begs you to suspend disbelief so that they will add, rather than detract from the themes that eventually develop. Cars that caused tragedies in the past will become the tools of tragedies he will
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