Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Book review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

Stephen King’s sprawling 11/22/63 is addictive. I just wish it wasn't so long.

Jake Epping is a divorced high school English teacher from Lisbon Falls, Maine. In June 2011, his friend Al, the owner of a diner with suspiciously low prices, calls him. Al has seemingly aged over night and is clearly near death. The reason why stuns Jake: Al has spent four years in the past. A corner of his pantry is not the wall it appears; it is a portal to September 1958.

Al has been using this “rabbit hole,” as he calls it, for years. He buys meat at the local market (explaining how he can make such a cheap hamburger) but left it that for a long time. Until he heard about a woman crippled in a hunting accident in 1958. He decides to test out what would happen if he saved her.

Al discovers he can change the past but the past is not easy to change; it resists. Still, when he returns to 2011 (only two minutes elapse in the present every time he goes into the past), he sees little difference, except that the woman was not crippled.

Al decides he can use the rabbit hole for real and lasting good if he can stop President Kennedy from being assassinated in 1963. He comes down with terminal lung cancer while in the past, and returns to the present, hoping he can convince Jake to take up the mission. TIme is of the essence, because the lease is up on the diner, and it is scheduled to be replaced by a box store, which no doubt will close the rabbit hole.

Jake first thinks Al is crazy but is convinced when he enters 1958 himself. Armed with what Al was able to prepare for him, Jake takes on the mission and takes the alias George Amberson. Since the past appears to reset with every re-entry, he must accomplish again anything he set straight the last time before heading south and eventually to the Texas 1963 rendezvous.

Jake/George is a truly decent guy who finds it in himself to both love and kill. He doesn’t appear to have any serious flaws, which makes him a little less than three-dimensional. The same can be said of the other major characters; the decent ones, anyway. King paints Lee Harvey Oswald as more complicated, with spots of decency and reasons for being the way he is, but in the end Oswald is a loser who by giving in to it, leaves his humanity behind and becomes evil.

What really drives this massive novel (842 pages) are the questions, will Jake/George succeed? What will happen if he does? In this Stephen King does a terrific job. Except for the period that Jake/George must wait between 1958 and November 1963, the book is a page-turner. Having not experienced that period of time myself, I can’t say for sure, but I think King does a great job of recreating it.

11/22/63 is a must for King fans, Kennedy buffs, and time-travel enthusiasts. Anyone else with enough time and strong-enough wrists should find it entertaining as well.

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