Monday, January 23, 2012

Crossover Appeal: Stephen King's 11/22/63

11/22/63
by Stephen King
Scribner
2011
849 pages

This is an open letter to Stephen King:

Dear Stephen (I use your first name since you have been in my head for at least 25 years. I hope you don't mind):

I now forgive you for The Tommyknockers. I devoted three days of my time back in 1988 devouring The Tommyknockers--during my ten year devotion to all things Stephen King--only to be so disappointed by the ending, I threw the book against the wall! I swore I would NEVER read Stephen King again, and I was true to my word until I picked up The Mist and Cell years later. I have to admit I was becoming a King fan again. I was intrigued by the idea of 11/22/63; that through time travel one man could change a watershed moment in history and prevent the death of a beloved president. I couldn't put this novel down and kept thinking about many questions it answered and many more questions it brought up.

From the moment I began I was enthralled. Stephen, you have outdone even yourself! 11/22/63 is a watershed novel. It has everything a reader could want: mystery, suspense, intrigue, romance, seduction, murder, suicide, evil, magic, and time travel. This is a real page-turner that will make readers think long after finishing the novel.

Jake Epping is a normal high school English teacher who picks up extra money teaching an adult GED class in the evening. He is a divorced guy with a typical bachelor life. He just gets by day after day. He happens to read an essay by the high school custodian that shatters him. The custodian's mother and siblings were murdered right in front of him and he was left semi-crippled by a madman: his own father. Jake takes Harry to grab a burger at a little dive nearby. Later, Al the diner's owner, takes Jake to a back room and tells him a little secret; the rear of the pantry is actually a portal (a rabbithole) that leads back to the past, in fact the same day every time in 1958. A few days later, Jake visits Al and he's shocked by his appearance. Al has lost tons of weight and seemingly aged 20-30 years overnight.

Al explains that he has been gone five years (only two minutes in real time) and that he has cancer and won't last but a few more days. He enlists Jake's help and he begins relating his strange story. Al has been using the rabbithole for a long time. He'll go back and buy groceries for the diner at 1958 prices; sometimes he'll stay a few minutes or a few days, but when he comes back, it's always only two minutes later in real time. Al gives Jake a notebook; it is his notes on Lee Harvey Oswald. Al has the idea that if you could travel back to 1958 and live there a few years, you could find Lee Harvey Oswald and stop him from killing President John F. Kennedy in 1963. This is a watershed moment in history that can be prevented. Al and Jake wonder if Kennedy lives, will the future be better or worse? Will Robert Kennedy live or die, will the race riots occur, will Martin Luther King, Jr., be assassinated, will Vietnam be stopped and millions of young American lives saved?

To prove their theory, Jake travels back in time and tries to stop Harry's father from murdering the whole family. When he comes back to the present, Harry doesn't have a limp and he's not a custodian. Jake is able to save the family and Harry's future. What you put right in the past will affect everything around it--the Butterfly Effect. Will Jake ruin things in the future if he changes the past? Al brings up the principle of Occam's Razor--a philosophy that states if you have two ideas about how something happened, the simplest idea is probably the true one. Al provides Jake 1958 money, a driver's license, his notebook on Oswald and advice to "blend in." Al warns Jake about the Yellow Card man who sits by the opening of the rabbithole and yells at Al each time he travels to the past. After a couple of trips, Jake realizes that the Yellow Card man knows about the time travel and is trying to warn him.

Jake loves 1958 America at first. Although it's stinkier--everyone smokes cigarettes and factories belch out black smoke--food tastes better. A root beer tastes "rootier"--it's before preservatives and artificial coloring. Ladies wear dresses with hats and gloves every day! Children jump rope in front of their homes, women stay home and cook and clean. Husbands work and commute. The seedier side of 1958 is that some men beat their wives and kids and neighbors look the other way. Violence is a part of everyday life in the past. Jake lives in Derry, Maine, for awhile and then moves to Texas so he'll be in place to spy on Lee Harvey Oswald.

He buys a degree from a college and takes a job as a high school teacher making friends and romancing the school's librarian. Sadie and Jake fall in love but they can't marry because Sadie is still legally married to her first husband who beat her. Jake is happy and he thinks of staying in 1958 and marrying Sadie, but he knows he must save the President and complete his promise to Al.

Jake gambles on prize fights and ball games--losing a few times to make it look like he's a bad gambler, but winning when the payoff is huge. After all, he knows who will win and bets accordingly. This doesn't sit well with bookies and soon Jake is beaten by some goons who work for the local bookie. He loses his memory but finally comes clean with Sadie telling her his strange story that he's from the future and has a job to do. Sadie's husband shows up with his own vendetta.

Will Jake and Sadie save the President? If they do, what repercussions will there be? Will Jake stay in the past? What happens if he does? If he returns to present day, will Sadie ever forgive him? How many things can be changed in the past without changing reality itself? The ending was just as weepy as "The Notebook," so have tissues ready.

Stephen, you said you tried to write this book back in 1972 but "the wound was too fresh"--only 9 years after Kennedy's assassination-- and that you were glad you waited until now to write it. I am glad, too. In 1972, I would have been too young to read this book, let alone appreciate it. I want to thank you for entertaining all of us--not just entertaining--but giving us a fresh look at history and making us want to know more. This is your masterpiece, and I'm thrilled to have read it and reviewed it.

Highly, highly recommended grades 9-up. This is an adult novel with teen crossover appeal. Anyone who loves King's earlier writing will love 11/22/63. History buffs and Kennedy fans will also want to read King's thrilling opus! Mature content, some sex, rough language.

FTC Required Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher. I did not receive monetary compensation for this review.

2 comments:

  1. I also stopped reading Stephen King years ago when he just got too weird, which is saying a lot! I have picked up a few in recent years, though. The idea of this book intrigued me. I started reading the hardcopy in the car on the way home from FL. When night came, I downloaded it to my new Nook so I could keep reading it. I could not put it down. I thought he did a fabulous job and still think about the "what ifs and how comes." This is a job very well done, Stephen. (I like your son's contribution!)

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  2. I guess I must be in the minority...I really LOVED "The Tommyknockers".

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