11/22/63 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Simon & Schuster, 2011
The past is obdurate for the same reason a turtle’s shell is obdurate: because the living flesh inside is tender and defenseless. ~11/22/63
I may be a mad dog fan of Stephen King, but that doesn’t mean everything he writes gets me foaming at the mouth. Over the years there have been disappointments — but this book is not one of them. I would rank King’s foray into time travel and historical fiction as a rousing, emotional, unforgettable success for in it he is doing what King does when writing at his absolute best – create an epic, original story arc that grips the reader with a serious case of “the gottas” (as in, I gotta know what’s going to happen next) and people it with richly drawn characters with unique pasts and motivations that empower them to walk right off the page.
Kennedy’s assassination may not be THE shot heard round the world, but it definitely qualifies as one of them. For those Americans who lived through it (and other interested observers from afar) it became one of those watershed moments in history (where were you when it happened?) Not just because a President was murdered in cold blood (a rare event if there ever was one), but because he was the youngest President, a father of two small children with a beautiful wife, cut down in the prime of his life. Kennedy carried a mystique around him as a tall, handsome, capable man who was going to steer America into the horizon of a happy ending. He had his detractors (no doubt about that) and those who felt he robbed Nixon of the 1960 election, but his obvious charisma and charm garnered him an equal amount of support and admiration as well.
His death shocked millions and left a generation of supporters to wonder what if? What if Kennedy had lived? It’s easy to build someone into a hero and a saint after they have died too young. It happens all the time. When it happens to a man such as Kennedy? That myth-building starts immediately and never ceases. The “walk on water” Christ mythology that sprouted up around Kennedy since his assassination definitely exists. Baby boomers like to believe that had he lived he could have saved an entire generation, but that’s just wishful thinking. Kennedy was just a man. Not a saint or a miracle worker. He had his flaws and shortcomings like anyone else. Yet the temptation to believe an America where Kennedy had lived would be a better America persists to this day, and King, being the master storyteller that he is, taps into that long held dogma and runs with it as only he can.
At the heart of this story is the sexy question: if you could change history, would you? Should you? It’s nothing but hubris and complete folly to assume that the changes you wrought would guarantee something better. There are no guarantees in this life except for one: the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. King is taking one of his country’s watershed moments – the Kennedy assassination – and sending an unassuming English teacher back in time carrying all the “good intentions” in the world. Jake Epping has a mission and his heart is filled with the certainty that what he is doing is the right thing. Such a man can be a fool, a hero, or very dangerous. At his most influential, such a man will be all three.
I love time travel – the unintended consequences, the paradoxes, the complete mindfuck it can turn out to be. That’s why The Butterfly Effect is one of my favorite movies and I adore when Homer sends himself back in time to the land of dinosaurs and tries to get back to a present he can live with. Without getting too geeky science-fictiony about the whole process, King creates a believable portal into the past complete with its own rules and peril.
Something else this novel does is paint a very intimate portrait of small town American life circa 1958-63 (and a visit to Derry!) King knows small towns like nobody’s business and when he writes them he takes the reader by the hand and drops them directly into the landscape. But King isn’t doing just small towns here; he is writing a particular time as well as place. He creates a sense of nostalgia, but one with teeth. There is the sugary, Land of Ago where everything is cheaper and shinier and seemingly more innocent, but mixed with the darker, hidden elements of racism, domestic violence, and poverty. King’s microscope misses no detail – there is glory and wonder, but there is ugliness and harshness too.
Under King’s microscope is also a very real historical figure, and that is Lee Harvey Oswald. I love what King is able to accomplish here, showing Oswald as a regular guy, a small man who beat his wife, a small man who suffered from a bad case of arrogance and delusions of grandeur. Under the microscope is also Oswald as the Lone Gunman. Was he or wasn’t he? I found this part of the novel to be the most gripping and engaging. Jake Epping’s long, lonely stakeouts, his stalking and hunting of Oswald made the most sense to me, and rang the most true. Jake Epping finds love and friends, but his relationship with Oswald is the one I will never forget.
Epping is us and we go on this adventure not just with him, but in a way as him. I figure this is as close any of us will ever get to traveling back in time in an attempt to change history. It all feels so real — King hits upon every sense – you are seeing, smelling, tasting, touching and hearing all at once. It is an intoxicating brew, a cautionary tale for the ages.
…when that happens, you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know that? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.