Fifty years ago today President John F. Kennedy was taken from us by an assassin’s bullet. On this tragic anniversary, we’re going to take a look at the novel 11/22/63 by master storyteller Stephen King. In this tale of time travel, it poses the question that if you could, would you go back in time and save JFK? And if it was possible, would you be able to pull it off and how? Meet me after the jump, for my thoughts on the multiple award winning 11/22/63.
I used to devour everything by Stephen King when a new book would come out. He has a writing style, so pleasant, so friendly, that even when it’s at its most horrific or its more mundane, I always found it a pleasure to read. I have said in the past that I would read the phone book by King. Then I hit Under the Dome, and it kinda stopped me, like I’d hit a dome.
I found the book to be impenetrable. In my frustration, I fell away from King. When I had heard that he was writing a sequel to The Shining however, I decided to give it re-read in preparation for the new book, Doctor Sleep. Both the biting reality of The Shining, in light of since learning about King’s alcoholism, and just how darned good the sequel was – I was back on the King bandwagon.
In talking with Biff Bam Pop! editor-in-chief Andy Burns about how much I had liked the two books, he asked if I had read 11/23/63 by Stephen King. I had not, but I was on a roll, I had it on my Nook already, so I dived right in. Whereas Under the Dome seemed like forced or faked King to me, 11/23/63 was the real deal, and I was entranced right away.
Traditionally, science fiction is something Stephen King has stayed away from. Oh he’s dabbled. There’s The Tommyknockers, The Running Man, The Long Walk, and the short story “The Jaunt,” for instance, but for the most part, scifi is not his realm. However, here in 11/23/63, he tackles time travel, but in a very special way.
King has talked about this book over the years. It is an idea, dating back to before Carrie, but one that he never had the time to put the proper historical research into. And so the story took years to simmer in the back of the master stoyrteller’s mind. I think he had to talk himself into writing it.
King talked openly about the story for the first time during publicity for the Marvel Comics version of The Dark Tower, “I’d like to tell a time-travel story where this guy finds a diner that connects to 1958… you always go back to the same day. So one day he goes back and just stays. Leaves his 2007 life behind. His goal? To get up to November 22, 1963, and stop lee Harvey Oswald. He does, and he’s convinced he’s just FIXED THE WORLD. But when he goes back to ’07, the world’s a nuclear slag-heap. Not good to fool with Father Time. So then he has to go back again and stop himself… only he’s taken on a fatal dose of radiation, so it’s a race against time.”
King hoped that this would be a book, because of its content – everyone is connected to the JFK assassination – that would appeal to mass audiences. Reading these thoughts of King’s boggle my mind honestly. He is one of the world’s bestselling authors, and he’s still worrying about appealing to mainstream audiences? Wow.
Hows, Whys, and Rules
There’s no hard fast explanation. Time travel in 11/23/63 just is. Schoolteacher Jake Epping’s favorite diner has a storeroom that just happens to open up to an alley in 1958. There are rules, but nothing too technical or spectacular. King certainly didn’t spend too much time figuring out as much as figuring in. 11/23/63 has the spirit of time travel without the mindboggling tech. This is Back to the Future without the DeLorean, it’s just a step away.
Anything you change in the past, pretty much sticks. Unless you go back again, then it’s like a videogame reset. And you always go back to the same unchanged day when you go back, and when you return, no matter how long you spent in the past, you return to the present two minutes later. Got it? There’ll be a test. Of course that’s all if you want to change something in the past. Sometimes a change is good, sometimes bad. The only way to find out is to try it.
Here’s the thing, Jake’s buddy, Al, the owner of the diner, has been playing with this thing for a while, and he has a plan, a mission… he wants to save the world. Once you’ve changed things about your own life, made things better for yourself, the second thing most folks think of when time travel comes up is maybe sightseeing. See Krakatoa, the birth of Christ, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, whatever. But the third thing, Stan Lee said best with Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Yeah, you want to save the world.
The year 1958 is too late to kill Hitler, but it’s just close enough to possibly save JFK… you just have to wait five years in the past. But think about it. Five years is a really long time. Especially without Candy Crush, the Internet, streaming video, all that good stuff. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, you actually have to interact with people. You have to keep from being bored, and you have to eat, so you have to get a job. Not as easy as you thought, is it?
The job is not as easy as it seems. Jake has to get a job, mostly to pass the time, money he has (yes, long story, but it’s money of the era). He’s a teacher by trade, so he gets a teaching gig, and falls in love with the school librarian, pretty but awkward Sadie, a young lady with baggage, impressive baggage, even for the 1950s. Even though Jake seems to like his time in the past, he wasn’t expecting this.
Then there’s also the way the time warp works. He doesn’t just make one trip, he makes a few. So every time Jake goes back to the past to repair one thing, before he can get back to that point, he has to re-do all the repair work he did on the last trip. Got it? And then there’s also the tracking of Lee Harvey Oswald as well, which gives us a well researched look into the mind and background of a killer. I’m not a big conspiracy buff when it comes to JFK, but I dug this.
In this era of subtext, 11/23/63 is really also about something else. Oh, it may sound like a great concept, time traveler trying to save JFK, but really, this is about romance, the wonderful relationship between Jake and Sadie, and the lies that he has told her. The core of the book’s theme is about truth. Is truth more important than love, or happiness, or is it the other way around? That’s what 11/23/63 is really all about.
One of the best parts for me as a Stephen King fan is an enjoyable side trip that Jake makes on one of his early journeys into the past. He visits the town of Derry, notorious from his mega-novel It, and also spends a bit of time with two of that book’s protagonists. I loved it, and if you’re a King fan, you will too. Good stuff.
Thanks to Andy for recommending the book to me, reaffirming my faith in Stephen King, and convincing me to read what is probably the best book I’ve read this year. 11/23/63 – highly recommended, especially on the fiftieth anniversary of its tragic inspiration.