11/22/63, by the inimitable Stephen King (New York: Scribner, 2011)
"On November 22, 1963, three shots rang out in Dallas. President Kennedy died, and the world changed forever.
"If you had the chance to change the course of history, would you? Would the consequences be worth it?
"Jake Epping is a thirty-five-year old high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching adults in the GED program. He receives an essay from one of the students -- a gruesome, harrowing first person story about the night 50 years ago when Harry Dunning's father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a hammer. Harry escaped with a smashed leg, as evidenced by his crooked walk.
"Not much later, Jake's friend Al, who runs the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to 1958. He enlists Jake on an insane -- and insanely possible -- mission to try and prevent the Kennedy assassination. So begins Jake's new life as George Amberson and his new world of Elvis and JFK, of big American cars and sock hops, of a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and a beautiful high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill, who becomes the love of Jake's life -- a life that transgresses all the normal rules of time."
"Harry Dunning graduated with flying colors."
This is what I'm talking about. Not perfect -- it's a very long book, and the extended, frustratingly subtle tracking of Oswald Jake-as-George needs to do to be sure he's stopping/ killing the right man drags a bit in places -- but mostly an entertaining and provocative book. As I've had to specify for other long-term King fans, it's not gory, either; this is not Cujo, or Carrie, or even the more recent Cell (which I happened to love anyway).
The time travel aspect of the book is well done. I particularly appreciated that through Al's experience, which happens off-screen before the novel opens, King's able to set up the rules for time travel fairly quickly and painlessly: 1) the portal always leads to Lisbon Falls, ME, circa 9/9/58; 2) no matter how long you stay in the past, only two present-day minutes have elapsed when you return; and 3) every time you travel back in time, it's a reset, and anything you changed on your last visit is erased. Establishing the above from the get-go allows Jake-George, and the reader, to spend more time on the really intriguing questions: Does the butterfly effect really exist? Can time resist being changed? Can one person make a difference?
But where the story really excels is in the everyday details of the late 1950s and early 1960s. This was before my time, of course, but I'm not alone in thinking so; says Errol Morris's New York Times review, "The real events aren’t historical, they’re very small — giving advice to a football player, staging the school play, doing the Lindy Hop with Sadie. We are brought back to the weird quotidian, endlessly surrounded by the detritus of civilization: Kresge’s, Ban-Lon, Aqua Velva, Studebaker." Jake's experience of these days with the 2011 knowledge of all that's happened since is surprisingly poignant. It's not that he glosses over the darker aspects of the era; on one road trip, he muses on the "Colored" restroom he encounters (a wooden board over a creek, in the side of a hill covered with poison ivy), and evidence of the repressive, sexist mores of the day is everywhere. And then there are the moments at both so simple and so brilliant that you wonder how King comes up with this stuff. One of Sadie's first inklings that George isn't being completely honest with her comes when she hears him singing "Honky Tonk Woman" (which wouldn't be released for several more years) -- not simply because she's never heard the song, but because there's no way, no how any radio station in the country would have played those lyrics in 1961.
All in all, a darned good read.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.