“11/22/63” by Stephen King (Scribner, 2011)


In Stephen King’s latest tome, weighing in at almost 850 pages, the master of horror takes on a whole new sub-genre that he hasn’t really dealt with before: time travel. What’s interesting is while playing around with time travel can be a lot of fun for a while, King sticks to simple rules, and has more fun in making 11/22/63 more of an excellent work of historical fiction.  The date — November 11th, 1963 — is one burned in many people’s minds, especially if they were alive and old enough at the time to remember where they were the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

Jake Epping is a thirty-five year old high school teacher living in Lisbon Falls, Maine.  He enjoys his simple life, conveying to kids not just the beauty of the English language, but discussing and enlightening the teenagers with some of the great works of literature.  In the opening of 11/22/63, the reader learns about Harry Dunning’s past life.  Dunning is an adult student who got his high school diploma a while ago; Jake still has that very special essay Dunning wrote.  It wasn’t grammatically correct, and was filled with spelling errors; but it was also the story of the day Dunning’s father came home drunk, when he was a child, and brutally murdered his mother, sister and brother with a hammer, while Dunning barely made it out alive with his life, suffering a smashed leg.

It was a moving story that Jake has never forgotten.  He enjoys his days after school going to see his friend Al, who owns a local diner, where he enjoys one of the most delicious burgers on the planet, and the amazing thing about it is he hasn’t raised his prices in decades.  A customer can still enjoy a burger with fries for the ridiculously cheap price of under $3.  It seems like something Jake should be suspicious about, but the burgers taste too damn good.  The following day Jake meets up with Al again and finds him to be a changed man, incredibly aged overnight and he looks like he’s dying; that’s when Al tells him his story.

In the back of his diner is a portal to 1958.  Al himself has been back a number of times, and each time he comes back through it to the present, everything resets.  He’s narrowed everything down to one important event he believes will change everything: the assassination of JFK.  He tried once, spending five years back then, but it didn’t work.  Now it’s up to Jake.  And just to prove that anything is possible, Jake’s first mission is going to be to go back and stop Dunning’s father from killing his family.

11/22/63 isn’t a time travel science fiction novel, it’s a historical fiction novel that features time travel; kind of like how The Time Traveler’s Wife was a love story involving time travel.  And while the time travel is an entertaining facet of this novel, it is the moving story of the past, of the 1950s and early ‘60s, the lives of some incredible characters, and the work of one man’s detailed effort to prevent one of the most infamous moments in American history.  King has outdone himself with some immense research, immersing the reader in the feel of this time period, in the minutiae of everyday life for some people living in Texas.  And as the reader reads further into the book, he or she can’t not notice the details of this world, and how different it is to our modern one.  The result is a moving story with powerful characters and an insight into a way of life many of us have never experienced, making it one of King’s most important works of his career.

Originally written on December 28, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

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