I was a big Stephen King fan in high school. I devoured most of what he’d written, and while a lot of it was schlock, there’s no denying the man is a master storyteller. And in fact, I maintain that Misery, The Dead Zone, Different Seasons and The Green Mile are all genuinely good and fully-realized novels. King’s latest effort, 11/22/63, is his professed labor of love; at 849 pages, it’s the book he’s wanted to write for the past thirty years, the book whose subject matter and depth of required research set him off the project time and time again. Now, it’s finally done, and it seems to have been worth it: The book’s received rave reviews and was even included on The New York Times‘s Notable Books of the Year list, proving it’s Not Just Another Stephen King Novel. Here’s the premise: Jake Epping is a high school teacher in Lisbon, Maine who discovers a time portal (or a “rabbit hole,” as it’s called in the novel) in an old diner that propels him back to the morning of September 9th, 1958. He can return to 2011 easily; no matter how long he stays in the past, only two minutes have gone by in the present; and he can go back and forth as many times as he chooses. That said, each time he re-enters 1958, everything he did on the last trip is erased; in effect, each episode of time-travel serves as a reset button. Jake can, for instance, step back in time and prevent a hunter from shooting a young girl, but if he gets the itch, after he’s safely back into 2011, to time-travel even once more, the girl remains in danger unless he makes the effort to save her again. And it’s not as easy as you might think: the past, King maintains, is obstinate; it doesn’t want to be changed.
Needless to say, there are a lot of details that don’t add up, but we’re meant to simply take the fantastical aspects of the novel on faith—this is the way the portal works, let’s move on. Messy paradoxes (what if Jake dies in the past?) or Oedipal possibilities (what if Jake accidentally has sex with his mother?) are skirted over for the real meat of the narrative: the allure of alternative history. Jake is urged by the man who reveals the diner’s secret to go back to 1958, stake out Lee Harvey Oswald, and save President John F. Kennedy—and in turn, save Martin Luther King, save Bobby, save all the kids who lost their lives in Vietnam, fulfill all those fantasies that proclaim the US would be a fundamentally different, better place if Kennedy had lived.
To be honest, though, while I admit 11/22/63 capable of emotionally engaging even the most hardened reader, I found parts of it tedious beyond belief. When you’re Homer descanting on the line of a thousand ships in the Iliad, or Tolstoy recounting, in excruciating detail, innovations in Russian agriculture in Anna Karenina, you get a pass; when you’re Stephen King telling us what kind of meat the townsfolk up in Derry, Maine like to order at the supermarket, you really just need to get on with it.
This is all my way of saying the book could easily have been chopped to about half its size. It’s not a taxing read, and it’s not so long you’ll never bother to finish it, but when you’re done, you consider the possibility that King’s ego and/or his notorious sense for the macabre might be a little out of control. King has an undeniable knack for elucidating just why small towns in America can be so creepy, and why the town butcher may be up to no good because he lives in a housing project on the wrong side of the tracks, but the book is supposed to be about Lee Harvey Oswald. And for all the fixation on the lone gunman (and King makes no bones about his opinion that Oswald acted alone) who changed the course of American history, we don’t end up feeling like we actually know the killer all that well. And perhaps that’s the point. But by the time the protagonist actually makes it to Dallas, we’re not on the edge of our seats so much as harping inwardly: “It’s about time.”
Without giving away the ending—does Jake save Kennedy or not?—King could have also stood to explore the whole “butterfly effect” concept a bit more in-depth. Jake’s epiphany about the road to hell his good intentions pave is not just late in coming, but also is given short shrift in favor of the novel’s rather banal central love story. All told, 11/22/83 isn’t a bad book, and you won’t regret reading it. Then again, you probably won’t regret skipping it, either.