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Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

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Stephen King’s latest novel, 11/22/63, is not what you might expect from the master of horror. For one thing, it’s not horror. It’s a time travel yarn, a love story, a meticulously researched piece of historical fiction, and a gripping suspense novel. But it’s definitely not horror. It is, instead, something new and different for King, and for those of us who are longtime fans, it’s a welcome change. King is still doing in this book what he has always done best: he thrusts ordinary people into extraordinary situations and then sees what happens. Which makes for a great story.

The premise of the novel is a big “what if?” What if you could travel back in time? Would you try to make a big change, such as prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy? What ripples would such a change cause in the present? King gets the time travel stuff out of the way early on, which is a good thing. He doesn’t try too hard to explain how the time travel works, but neither does he wave it away.

The portal to the past is located in the back of a diner in a small town in Maine. It leads back to the same moment: a morning in late summer of 1958. Al, the owner of the diner, discovers the portal quite by accident. He makes many trips to the past for vacations and to buy cheap hamburger before it occurs to him that he might be able to change history. But before he can do so, he contracts a terminal case of lung cancer. So he enlists high school teacher Jake Epping in the cause.

The rules of time travel are simple, at least as Al understands them and explains them to Jake. He can go back and stay in the past as long as he likes, but when he returns, it is always exactly two minutes after when he left. If anything is changed in the past, it stays that way until someone goes back again; then it resets, and any changes made are lost. Of course, nothing having to do with time can be that simple, but that’s part of the suspense of the story.

1958 must have been a watershed year for King, since one of his most beloved books, It, is also set mainly during the summer of that year. Of course, to make us longtime fans happy, Jake will have to pay a visit to the Derry of 1958, and he does as a test run, to see what happens when he saves someone’s life in the past. By the time he gets to Derry, the events of It are over, but he does meet a couple of favorite characters from that novel. And Derry’s specter shadows him for the rest of the story.

But Jake spends the bulk of his time in Dallas and the small town of Jodie nearby, stalking Lee Harvey Oswald and preparing to intervene in history. He takes his time, because he wants to be sure that Oswald acted alone before he interferes. So he gets a job as a substitute teacher at a small-town high school, and falls in love with the school librarian. Naturally, this complicates his mission.

If I have any criticism of this novel, it’s that it runs a bit long, clocking in at over 800 pages. This is a problem with many of King’s recent books, which all could use some editing. The middle seems to bog down. But King has done his research, and this novel is also a detailed look at what daily life was like in the years just before the Kennedy assassination, down to the cost of a hamburger. Even if you forget all the time travel business, that aspect alone makes this a wonderful read.

The novel picks up steam as the assassination looms nearer, and as the past — which is obdurate, as Jake says — throws all sorts of roadblocks in his way. We are on the edge of our seats. Will he make it in time? If he does, what will the ripple effect be? Will the future be better, or will the consequences be unforeseen? And if Jake does mess everything up, can he fix it? You will have to pick up the book to discover the answers to these questions.

11/22/63 is the best novel Stephen King has produced in a long time. It’s great to see this long-established author trying his hand at a different genre, while retaining the proven elements of his storytelling. I would recommend this book for any Stephen King fan, as well as to readers who are new to King but are squeamish about reading horror.

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About Shannon Turlington

  • http://www.qwantuamaru.com Qwantu Amaru

    Excellent review and I completely agree on two points you raise. 1) The middle does does slow down and 2) This is up there with his greatest works. But King does romance well, always has. From Christine to The Dead Zone to Wizard and Glass and The Green Mile, King understands romance and writes it quite well in my opinion, which makes the horror (when it happens) all the more effective.

  • John Sausedo

    I just finished reading ’11/22/63′ Stephen King’s new mega novel. (849 pages) Perhaps you’ve seen the ad on TV showing a smiling JFK and Jackie waving to the crowd as they follow the motorcade route into Dealey Plaza The picture freezes on Kennedy and the voice over begins, “On November 22, 1963, three shots rang out in Dallas, President Kennedy died, and the world changed. What if you could change it back?” What if indeed? That brief advertisement really got its hooks into me, being both a JFK history buff and a King fan, I knew I’d be reading the new book real soon.

    The premise of the novel is quite simple, a time traveler goes into the past to try and prevent the Kennedy assassination. Think about it, What if somehow through the magic of science or a quirk of nature someone could go back to that fateful Friday and alter the course of history by preventing Kennedy’s assassination. Can you imagine How different the future might be if President Kennedy had not been shot and killed in Dallas that fateful Friday? Would the course of history have been altered? Would Kennedy have been re-elected for a second term in 64? Would he have gotten us entrenched in Vietnam or would the war have been avoided? What would the civil rights movement have looked like? Could his not being assassinated have caused a ripple effect sparing the lives of Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy five years later? Would another Kennedy be in office for eight more years? the possibilities are endless.

    But this is not the path Stephen King chose to take in his novel. It is not a story about a major tragedy being averted and the resulting changes that occur. In fact King doesn’t even pursue specific or immediate changes and spends only a few pages describing how the world of 2011 has been altered by the saving of Kennedy’s. King, best known as a horror fiction writer has chosen a different approach instead. ’11/22/63′ is no horror story. There is nothing supernatural, no vampires, werewolves, demonic trucks or killer clowns. Wait that’s not entirely true, references are made to a killer clown, as well as other references to some characters and locations from his other novels. The only elements of horror contained in ’11/22/63′ are horrors of the human kind, created by hatred, resentment, prejudice and fear. No, what King has written here is a love story, a love story of grand design, filled with warmth and tenderness set against a backdrop of time travel and the Kennedy assassination.

    Personally I would have preferred for King to have focused more on the effects saving Kennedy had on our history, both immediately after the assassination attempt and the ensuing decades, leading up to the present. Actually that is what I expected him to focus on.. Was I disappointed in King’s approach to the story, not in the least. Not only was it a great read, I believe it’s one of his best works.

    King has published 49 novels to date aa well as 9 short story collections. Of all his work I have long considered ‘The Stand’ to be my all time favorite King novel. It is the classic battle of good versus evil brought about by the accidental release of ‘Captain Tripps’ a deadly flu virus that wipes out nearly the entire world population and sets up a showdown between the epitome of evil Randall Flagg against the good and righteous Mother Abigail. If you’ve never read it I highly recommend it. Second on my list is ‘The Shining,’ followed by two of his short story collections: ‘Different Seasons’ and ‘Skeleton Crew’. Rounding out my top 5 would be ‘It” the tale of the killer clown. I believe ’11/22/63′ ranks right up there with these 5 outstanding King works.

    King once said in an interview that he wasn’t very good at writing about love and intimacy, perhaps all those years ago when the remark was made it may have been true, but not any longer “11/22/63″ is a romance for the ages and proves that he can definitely spin a compelling tale of love into his work, and do it well. If you like King’s sci-fi writing and you enjoy romance 11/22/63 is a must read.

    Just Saying…