Kicking off the not-so-new year with another giant literary tome from Stephen King, master of the macabre, ninja of nostalgia and writer of the five-part non-ending. I started reading 11/22/63 – “the one where he goes back in time and saves JFK” – at the end of 2018, but life events conspired to push its conclusion back into 2019, and so here we are, 800 some-odd (some very odd) pages later. I gripe about King’s frequent inability to satisfactorily conclude his stories, but he’s my favourite author, and if he released an entire book of short stories written in binary code, I’d read that, too. So a quiet little story about one man’s quest to alter the course of one very big event – with all the usual Kingsian complications in play – is riiiiiight in my literary wheelhouse. Bring on the revisionist history!
But here’s the thing – for the daughter of a couple of hardcore Boomers, the kind of people who remember the day some combination of Lee Harvey Oswald, the CIA and a grassy knoll in Texas assassinated John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, I know precious little about the actual event itself. Nor have I ever felt the need to rectify that particular gap in my knowledge of American politics; it’s a world so far removed from mine, I’ve never cared to seek out those details.
That’s clearly not the case with King, who devotes nearly 900 pages to the subject of JFK’s assassination. Sort of. 11/22/63 is not really about JFK at all, and it’s only nominally about his violent, greatly disputed death. What 11/22/63 is actually about is love. And dancing.
The mostly spoiler-free details, and how this very retro manicure fits into the grander scheme of things: 11/22/63 begins not in 1963, nor does it start in 1958, where the wormhole that makes this a time travel story exists. It actually starts in 2011 – in Maine, naturally – with 35-year-old high school English teacher Jake Epping. Fresh off a contentious divorce to a woman who loved alcohol – and other men – a lot more than him, and experiencing diminishing returns on his many years as an educator, Jake is well positioned for a major life change. That that change would come in the form of multiple, increasingly complex jaunts into the past via a wormhole in a smelly diner pantry is most likely not the kind of change Jake was envisioning, but the Kingsian world works in odd ways.
After being shown this rip in the fabric of time by diner owner and amateur time traveler Al Templeton (made ever so less impressive because of its physical location, situated between a dirty mop bucket on one side and a stack of canned goods on the other) Jake is tasked with returning to 1958, where he will live as a regular man of the time until November 22nd, 1963, when he will travel to Texas, kill Lee Harvey Oswald, save President John F. Kennedy and spare millions from the brutal political fallout sparked by his assassination. Al would do it himself were it not for the fact that he’s dying – time travel plays real hell on a person’s condition.
Al is adamant that, partisan concerns aside, JFK must be saved; Democrat, Republican, Sock Puppet, the global repercussions of his death are just too great. But Jake, who has read enough science fiction in his day, has concerns regarding Al’s proposed scheme. Assuming he completes his mission and doesn’t die right there in the 1960s, how is he to return to 2011? And if he does find his way back to 2011, what will he be returning to? The Butterfly Effect posits that the world will not be the same, cannot be the same, given such incredible intervention. Al assures him that he’s been back and forth hundreds of times – often for just a few hours, but sometimes for much, much longer – and aside from a hell of case of lung cancer he picked up on his last, years long trip, the world itself seemed to suffer no ill effects.
To that effect, Jake asks how he could have seen Al the day prior, happily (and more importantly, healthily) manning the counter at his diner, pushing his suspiciously inexpensive Fat Burgers, only for him to now be (barely) standing before him, wracked with stage 4 lung cancer. Al replies that time moves differently in the past, ticking off days upon months upon years in the then while mere moments pass in the now. Shrugging off Jake’s continued enquiries as to how any of this can possibly be, does he not feel the least bit conflicted about the irrevocable damage he may be inflicting on both the past and the present, Al replies that it’s not as irrevocable as Jake would think – the wormhole employs a kind of reset function that wipes the slate clean in the past every time Al returns to the present. So no harm, no foul to the people of the past, and Al can continue getting the meat for his Fat Burgers at 1958 prices.
Feeling like he doesn’t have much of a choice, and also wondering what the hell else he’s going to do with his life, Jake takes the bait and steps through into 1958.
With nothing but time on his hands between his arrival in 1958 and his date with Lee Harvey Oswald on the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository in 1963, Jake tries to acclimate to the time, finding it relatively easy. Seems he wasn’t a man built for the modern era after all. Upon discovering that he has reservations about the hows and whys of his task – does he really have to kill Oswald? Can he not just divert him from his chosen path? – Jake conducts a couple of test cases, and discovers what could be 11/22/63’s overriding theme – the past is obdurate and will resist all attempts at change. Jake frequently, and bitterly, addresses the Al who has taken up residence in his head, accusing him of radically underselling the ease, or lack thereof, of altering the very course of time.
With years to go until his main mission, Jake sets out to learn everything he can about Oswald, tracking his movements as he and his family move from Russia to the United States, even going so far as to bug his home. Justifiably uneasy with the thought of killing an innocent man – but not necessarily a good man; Oswald is a certifiable piece of shit – Jake’s looking for proof irrefutable that Oswald done it, or will do it.
Then, once again looking for a way to pass the time, Jake moves to a small town outside of Texas, where he finds his real purpose in the past – friends that are like family, a meaningful career as a respected educator and mentor, and love. And it’s that love, forged on a small town gymnasium dance floor by two giddy teachers showing off their best Lindy Hops, that alters the course of Jake’s trajectory in the past, and whether his present is even something worth returning to.
In the interest of not giving away too much of what amounts to a simple story about a man finding love in the most unexpected of places and times, I won’t say much more. But these nails are a representation of 11/22/63’s other theme, which is that dancing is everything. I couldn’t think of anything more fitting than a manicure inspired by Jake and Sadie’s gleeful turn at the Hop.
All in all, a very enjoyable read that had so much less to do with JFK than I thought possible for a book (nominally) about the assassination of said man. Oh! and wonder of wonders, 11/22/63 has an ending, an actual, identifiable conclusion – and a satisfying one at that. It was just a very sweet love story set within the more complex framework of time travel, and nicely showed off the softer side of our man Steve. Aw, who knew King could get so warm and fuzzy?
By the by, I read this book in service of my blogging friends’ Jay and Julie’s 2019 reading challenge for the twelfth theme of “Shallowness: pick a book based on its spine appearance alone” because all 11/22/63 has its spine. 🙂