Published by Simon and Schuster on 8th November 2011
Genres: Adult, Fantasy, Historical Fantasy
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Dallas, 11/22/63: Three shots ring out.
President John F. Kennedy is dead.
Life can turn on a dime — or stumble into the extraordinary, as it does for Jake Epping, a high school English teacher in a Maine town. While grading essays by his GED students, Jake reads a gruesome, enthralling piece penned by janitor Harry Dunning: fifty years ago, Harry somehow survived his father’s sledgehammer slaughter of his entire family. Jake is blown away . . . but an even more bizarre secret comes to light when Jake’s friend Al, owner of the local diner, enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession — to prevent the Kennedy assassination. How? By stepping through a portal in the diner’s storeroom, and into the era of Ike and Elvis, of big American cars, sock hops, and cigarette smoke.
Finding himself in warm-hearted Jodie, Texas, Jake begins a new life. But all turns in the road lead to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald. The course of history is about to be rewritten . . . and become heart-stoppingly suspenseful.
“I have never been what you’d call a crying man.”
So says protagonist Jake Epping at book’s beginning, and this statement proves a true one throughout 11/22/63. Well, neither am I, at least when it comes to the printed medium of storytelling. But with this particular piece of print, I came very, very close.
Many, I think, operate under the mistaken notion that Stephen King is an author of only two things:
1. Queasy and macabre horror.
2. Enormous, insubstantial and altogether shallow novelistic pleasures.
I will forgive the first misconception, because King does in fact write almost exclusively within the darker and grislier corners of literary genre. The second is a tad more difficult, as it relies greatly on personal preference. While it is true that many of King’s books work primarily due to the simple escapism and straightforward thrills inherent to fear, I make the case that many of his biggest and most notable works hide depths that can be easy to miss amongst his obsession with childhood traumas and slithering Lovecraftian deities.
You may disagree, of course, but I pose the above statement as more a means of introducing the novel at focus in this review than as a thesis for some long-winded argument for the author’s place in scholarly lexicon.
The point that I wish to ultimately make is this: 11/22/63 is a King book for those who are fans of his bibliography. It is also a book for those who are not.
If you are seeking the abominable and the mythical, the gods and ghosts and strange of the typical King behemoth, I will tell you now that you will not find it here. Other than the obvious time-travelling element and the ideas inherent to the storytelling device, there is not much in the way of the supernatural or mythical to be had.
Rather, this is a story of love. Of dancing. Of theatre and football. Of lies and half-truths. Of gains and losses.
And of the Kennedy assassination, of course. But that is almost incidental.
There is, as there must be in any of King’s work, a fair share of violence, explicit in description and grisly in its imagery. Though not unexpected, I will say that these tableaus feel more out of place than they would in a typical frightfest from the author, as the bulk of the narrative is devoted to the day-to-day life of Epping and the lengths that he must go to prepare for the event that he has fallen through the rabbit hole to prevent. Still, we cannot have King give up completely on his familiar brand of repugnance, and the scenes are few and fairly far between.
The splatters of blood and shards of bone are not the important pieces of this chronicle, though. And, heck, despite devoting near a thousand pages to it, 11/22/63 is wonderful not so much for its labyrinthine exploration of the measures taken to prevent the murder of a beloved president as it is for the simple purities of the love between an English teacher caught in the complexities of a temporary past and a librarian who gives him reason to stay in it.
And it is really quite beautiful. King may not strike you as a capable craftsman of affection, but he is able to strike a spark and fan a flame with aplomb. There is such a sweetness and honesty, a genuine feeling, to his developing of the relationship that it is an absolute pleasure to watch, so much so that whenever Jake’s mission interposes itself to divert attention, it comes almost as a disappointment.
But the mission is an intriguing one to watch unfold, spanning years and subsequently complex in ways both expected and not. It is in this progress that the novel’s one real flaw becomes apparent: King has a predilection for surplus, and it is a consistent presence throughout 11/22/63. While the untold number of details and careful descriptions of Epping’s quest are interesting more often than not, the excess does grow tedious from time to time, and there is the sense that a trimming of the extravagance could have helped focus and streamline the story.
King’s lack of self-control is in some ways a blessing, though, particularly in regards to his worldbuilding. His vision of yesteryear is superbly realized, intricate and so thorough in the subtleties that it feels, no matter what the artistic measures taken, unquestionably real. And though there is the inevitable idealization of the American past, both on the part of the characters and their creator, King is wise enough to not overdo the sheen gilding the friendly neighbors and low, low prices of the decades gone by. He, at the very least, touches upon the dirtier aspects of the time, from racism to Cold War fear, and even that is enough to make the setting and its stories fell true.
It is still a thrilling ride, to be certain. Though a brief scene near the novel’s end feels a little too cliché, playing right into the over-the-top, apocalyptic scenario that tends to make an appearance in every time-travelling narrative, King wraps things up in a fairly unexpected manner that is maddening, bittersweet, and heartfelt all at once. I may not have shed tears, but I did come very close, and that is a rare enough occurrence for me that I have no choice but to tip my hat to the author. His conclusion is not the most ideal in relation to a hoped-for happy ending or fully satisfying wrap-up (especially in the implications left in connection to the primary narrative goal), but it is fulfilling and perfect in its own emotionally tumultuous way. It’s the sort of ending that sticks with you for some time, because you cannot ever quite decide how to feel about it. That’s what makes it brilliant.
And for those familiar with King’s past work, there will be delights aplenty to be found. Of particular note is the way in which he ties the narrative to the Derry, Maine of It fame, and the manner in which Jake comes into contact with a few familiar faces from that goliath of a tale. As an enormous fan of the book (having read it twice), I found it a charming little addition, and one that improved my personal reading experience immensely. If you know King at all, these additions are not unexpected, but they feel all the more special here given how unusual the work is as a whole.
11/22/63 is not a horror story, nor a science-fiction one. It is not a thriller, nor a romance. It is a great many things, and something worth the time of King fans and general fiction readers alike.
Because it is not all filth and suspense, lurking and dark. It is a school play that brings audiences to their feet. It is love that endures beyond secrets and tragedies. It is friendship in a small town. It is the hope for change and the belief that the struggle for it is worthwhile.
And, above all, it is dancing. It is dancing alone in the bedroom, and on stage for a crowd. It is dancing in dusk and in spotlight. It is dancing for the home and for the heart.
Because dancing is life.