Note: The following is a "reader's diary" post about Stephen King's 11/22/63. Spoilers abound.
People don't always get that. When King said of his 1983 novel Pet Sematary that it scared him more than anything he'd written to that time, fans read it and wondered why the tried-and-true-standard of the dead being possessed by evil spirits would scare the master of horror. But King didn't mean the ghost story part; he meant the part where he as a father had to write about the death of the main character's child. His own son's close call on a busy highway made the book that much more realistic and frightening to him. King may or may not believe in supernatural horror, but he certainly believes in the kind of real-life horror that confronts people every day. His 1986 It doesn't draw people in with the cosmic eldritch horror of It, but with the slice-of-life story of a group of misfit kids who band together in the face of older bullies and abusive parents and who happen to be the ones who know about and choose to fight the monster. Those parts of the story are by far the strongest; It runs off its rails (and gets a little squicky) when King moves away from the mundane into the extraordinary.
This humanist focus sets King's 2011 time-travel novel 11/22/63 not nearly as far away from his usual work as it might first appear, even if he is definitely coloring outside his usual lines. It has little horrific imagery and rests much more in the realm of science fiction than in horror -- and even then it wears its sci-fi elements very lightly.
It's also very likely the best novel he's published in more than a quarter of a century and ranks with some of his best work, like the original publication of The Stand, the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Drawing of the Three, overall.
Jake Epping teaches high school English in Lisbon Falls, Maine, and has taken on a job teaching the same course for GED students. One of his students, Harry Dunning, submits a story for an assignment about how an event changed his life -- he writes about the night his alcoholic father murdered the rest of their family with a hammer. Affected by the story, Jake develops a friendship with Harry. Another friend of Jake's, Al Templeton, owns a diner and two years after Jake and Harry meet, invites Jake to step inside a pantry at the back. When he does, he finds himself in Lisbon Falls as it was at two minutes before noon on September 9, 1958 -- there is a kind of time travel effect operating in the pantry. Someone who walks in always goes back to 9/9/58, but they return two minutes after they left the present, no matter how long they spent in the past. Al has been using the pantry to buy meat at 1958 prices to use in his diner, helping his bottom line.
But he also begins to think how he might change things for the better, and he decides that he will prevent John F. Kennedy's assassination. Al believes that many of the problems the United States endured through the second half of the 1960s and into the 1970s would have at least been eased if Kennedy lived. Partly because he believed that Kennedy would have pursued better policies than Lyndon Johnson did and partly because the assassination of a young, charismatic leader representing so much hope demoralized the country.
Only when Al tried to attack Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, he found himself stopped by a combination of his own uncertainty and time's resistance to change. That resistance is strong enough, he thinks, to have caused his terminal lung cancer. He doesn't have the strength or the time to go back again and try to stop Oswald, but Jake can. Jake is eventually convinced, but he tries an experiment first -- he uses the time slip to stop Harry Dunning's father from killing his family. The past resists his efforts and Jake has to fight off sickness and nausea that threaten to stop him, but he succeeds. When he returns from the past, he and Al learn that Harry, uninjured in the attack, never had to settle for being a high school janitor. Only Al and Jake know about the other timeline, but there is a strange man near the site of the time slip with a yellow card in his hat who seems to be slightly aware that Jake is out of place. But Jake also learns that a healthy Harry went to serve in Vietnam, where he was killed. He's unsure whether he wants to fulfill Al's mission, but Al overdoses on painkillers and leaves Jake only hours to make up his mind, so he returns through the time slip to 1958. Before he can go after Oswald, he has to once again stop Harry Dunning's father -- every trip through the portal resets things to their original path -- and also help out a young woman whom Al had rescued from a shooting accident.
Jake moves to Texas, where he works as a teacher and finds himself falling in love with Sadie Dunhill, the school librarian. She ends their relationship when his anachronistic behavior arouses her suspicions, and Jake leaves town to move to Fort Worth and set up shop across from what will become Oswald's apartment. When he reconnects with Sadie, he proves he's from the future by predicting the Cuban missile crisis resolution and although she is still unsure, she joins him in his quest. Jake loses his first good chance to stop Oswald during the attempted murder of Edwin Walker, as Sadie is attacked by her ex-husband. Jake has been using his knowledge of who won sports events to make his money, and a bookie who has lost quite a bit of money to him has him beaten into a coma. His recovery means he will not have a chance to stop Oswald before Nov. 22, and as it happens he reaches the assassin seconds before the fatal shot is fired. But he does prevent it, even though Oswald shoots and mortally wounds Sadie. Jake resolves to return to 2011 and re-engineer his attempt to fix his earlier mistakes, so that Kennedy and Sadie both survive.
At the portal, he meets a man with a green card in his hat, who has replaced the other man -- that one, with his card dead black, had committed suicide. The green card man says he acts as a guardian at portals like these, which bubble up now and again, to try to keep people from using them to change the past. The reason is that the past doesn't actually change. Every trip results in a new strand of history, and the strain of the multiple strands could destroy reality. People like the guardian, who are aware of the different strands, often go mad themselves. He suggests Jake take a look at the future he created, and then he will know he has to return to reset things.
Back in a new 2011, Jake finds a world not anything like the better world Al had envisioned. Kennedy hadn't escalated Vietnam to the degree that Johnson had, but neither had he been able to be as effective a leader on civil rights as Johnson. Unrest on that issue continued to plague the country, and subsequent presidents found themselves confronting and employing increasing violence to combat it. The reality-straining new timeline caused natural disasters that took their own toll on people, international tensions and the economy. Jake learns this from Harry Dunning -- not crippled by his father, but wheelchair-bound from a helicopter crash in a different Vietnam. Now convinced that his actions have truly endangered reality, Jake returns to the time portal to reset what he had done. He stays long enough to write his story and bury it, although he feels himself pulled to return to Texas and once again begin his relationship with Sadie, perhaps even to save her from her ex-husband. Eventually he goes back to 2011, not knowing if Sadie will live or not. It isn't until he is back in a now normal present that he learns she survived the assault, and it's a year before he decides to visit her small town in Texas. The book ends with Jake dancing with a now elderly Sadie, who does not know him, but who is somehow drawn to him.
Most of 11/22/63 is a straight-up historical fiction novel, albeit with a narrator that "knows the future," and that's one of its pluses. King's strongest talent has always been for storytelling and the kind of yarn-spinning that might start with, "Well, I went down to the store the other day," related in a perfectly normal if somewhat more reflective than ordinary voice. It's hardly a problem or a slight against his skill. After all, we talk that way all the time, so there's nothing wrong with writing in the same fashion. That quality often magnified the scary element of his best horror fiction; the fact that some great evil popped up right in the middle of the Mainest of Main Streets magnified the horror all the more.
When King marries this conversational, easy-flowing style to a good story, he offers books like 'Salem's Lot, Firestarter or Christine. All are great reads. But when he marries it to an interesting idea, he produces work that ought to be ranked with some of the best so-called literary fiction. And it would be if the folks who produced and marketed such didn't have such a public disdain for books that sold more than 8,000 copies and the writers who create them. In The Stand, people must choose between Randall Flagg's supposed security -- which will cost them their souls -- and Mother Abigail's community's seeming weakness and uncertainty -- which could cost them their lives. In Shawshank, Andy Dufresne must decide whether to "get busy living or get busy dying," to borrow a phrase from the movie made from the story.
And in 11/22/63, Jake has to confront the fact that even if a human being has the power to play God, he doesn't have God's knowledge. Some parts of the chaos that the time travels cause comes from the so-called "butterfly effect," cited as an example of how even the smallest of events -- the flapping of a butterfly's wings -- can have an influence on something halfway around the world. Each of Jake's choices, though he may have made them with good intentions, creates effects he can't foresee or even imagine. He must eventually come to terms with the fact that he can't know enough to re-order history as he sees fit.
King does cheat a little bit by creating the resonance effects that threaten the world and all of reality, which pushes Jake's inadequate knowledge in front of his face in an oncoming train kind of way. It might have been more interesting to see him deal with the kinds of changes that might he might have made on numerous attempts to "fix" things and to see Jake himself, rather than the guardian, start to lose his grip on reality as he tried again and again to order history for the best. Of course, that's also the premise of the crappy 2004 Ashton Kutcher movie The Butterfly Effect, but the day that Stephen King can't tell a better story than the guys who wrote Final Destination 2 is on a calendar page yet unturned.
Even with this cheat, 11/22/63 is one of King's books that should stay on your shelf for awhile and merits a re-visit or two, with some food for thought about a whole lot of things. As Jack reviews Sadie's life in the timeline where he never met her, he finds she was a community activist who did a lot of good in and around her town, helping many people, and that the Kennedy assassination was a spark that moved her to do so. Is King saying that, even though human beings aren't able to stop every tragedy that happens in the world, our responses may change them from engines of despair to engines of hope? Well, a guy like me who's a few weeks away from marking a great tragedy followed by the greatest hope of all might be prejudiced towards that interpretation, but there are others and 11/22/63 provides plenty of room to talk about them all.
Whether it was the intensive research King put into the book or the stretch that came from writing outside his normal genre conventions, he's written it with a tight focus and discipline that he's largely lacked since the Reagan administration. It still meanders some, it could use a little closer editing -- the town in Texas is "Killeen" with two l's, Steve -- and the end sequence winds up with a little more rushed feel than the rest of the book has, but a book that tells us there are no perfect worlds can't really be faulted for showing us that there are no perfect books, either.