REVIEW SUMMARY: King blends a mostly accurate portrayal of the Kennedy Assassination with time travel and a man set on doing the right thing by changing history, and turns it into a doorstop-sized page-turner that kept me reading through the night and almost made me miss work.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Given a way to go back in time and change history, Jake is persuaded that the world would be a better place by stopping Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating president Kennedy. After experimenting with changing history, he starts in 1958 and works his way toward that “watershed moment in history”. But along the way he tries to save more than just the world, and must balance honor and duty against love and comfort.
PROS: Stalking Oswald around the streets of Fort Worth and Dallas; portrayal of “evil” cities, small-town Texas, and the music of the 50s and 60s.
CONS: It’s a long doorstop.
BOTTOM LINE: King’s time travel novel focuses on the characters and events, a page-turner that makes the reader not only eager to see how events of history may be replayed but how the lives of the non-historical characters will turn out.
For purposes of perspective, know that my favorite Stephen King book is On Writing. Horror is not my thing and of King’s most recent non-horror efforts, I’ve used my wife’s opinion as a reliable barometer. Under the Dome had her cursing at the ending; The Dark Tower series she found just too depressing. But she nearly gave me a concussion beating me on the head with the 850+ page weapon that is 11/22/63. And knowing how much I enjoy reading history as well as science fiction and fantasy, she was right.
The basic synopsis is well-known: a gent (Jake Epping) is shown by a dying friend how to go back in time to exactly 11:58am, September 9, 1958. His friend, Al, tells him a bit about the vague rules of time travel he has learned through experience, then convinces Jake that a lot of world suffering would be alleviated if Lee Harvey Oswald (and whoever else was involved, if that could be discovered) was stopped before shooting President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
Al shares a few time travel rules, some which are proven out in the course of the book and others which are a bit suspect:
- Every time you come back from the past, everything is reset.
- Always give the Yellow-Card Man (who is a drunk but seems to know about the time travel fissure) “half a rock” but not the buck he asks for.
- You can bring items back with you, like the root beer Jake drinks, or other food items.
- The past doesn’t want to be changed.
I’ve read in other reviews that King does not explain the science behind what happens (like the dome in Under the Dome), and the same is true here. It is also true in other time travel books I enjoy which focus on plot and characters instead of technology, such as Julian May’s Sage of the Pliocene Exile and Paul Levinson’s The Plot to Save Socrates and Unburning Alexandria. But the discovery process King takes the reader through, of a restaurant owner/cook and an English teacher (Al and Jake), two non-techies, leads to experimentation…to determine whether the world really will change if they stop the assassination. Al has already done his experiment, and Jake spends a few months in the past performing his own.
He then embarks on a five-year adventure in his own past, sometimes feeling like a stranger in his own land. He enjoys the mostly preservative-free food and lack of TSA at airports, tolerates the smoking, listens to the music of the day and tries to blend in. He has to redo his “experiment” (no spoilers) then slowly makes his way to Dallas to begin stalking Oswald, trying to determine if Oswald really acted alone or if there is more work for Jake to do in the past. He learns more about time travel (the past definitely does not want to change and tries hard to stop him) and even more about himself; it is interesting that King takes a character with relatively no upside in the present, and gives him the opportunity to be a hero in the past. But with five years to kill and with a unique rear-view perspective, a person can’t help but philosophize:
Coincidences happen, but I’ve come to believe they are actually quite rare. Something is at work, okay? Somewhere in the universe (or behind it), a great machine is ticking and turning its fabulous gears. (pg 271)
It’s all of a piece, I thought. It’s an echo so close to perfect you can’t tell which one is the living voice and which is the ghost-voice returning.
For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath the mystery glass we call life. (pg 615)
Jake arrives in Dallas about a third of the way through the novel, and the mostly accurate depiction of Oswald’s activities and the assassination (King states he’s “gotten things wrong” and “changed things to suite the course” of the story in the afterword) begins. I am not certain, but I believe this mixture of history into a novel is a first for King. He interweaves it well, and while I plowed through the book to see if Jake succeeds and if, in King’s world, Oswald acted alone, I was just as interested in Jake, and his own struggle with his perceived duty to the world vs. the temptation to stay in the small town in Texas with the love of his life (who, incidentally, was born several decades before Jake) and tell her the truth.
I rejected the idea, but if came back the following night, rejuvenated. I could see myself sitting with her at her kitchen table, drinking coffee in the strong afternoon sunlight that slanted through the window over the sink. Speaking calmly. Telling her my real name was Jacob Epping. I wouldn’t actually be born for another fourteen years, I had come from the year 2011 via a fissure in time….How would I convince her of such a thing?…She’d think I was crazy. (pg 439)
My concern going into this reading (other than the extreme commitment a 850+ page book brings…could we just live together first?) was that I would be disappointed in the ending, as my wife had been with Under the Dome and others had been with other King novels (or so they said through their reviews). While the ending doesn’t present a Grand Unified Theory of time travel and life, it is to me a satisfying ending. (King thanks his son, the novelist Joe Hill, in his Afterword, saying he “…pointed out several consequences of time-travel I hadn’t considered. He also thought up a new and better ending.” I wonder what the other ending was?) The Yellow Card Man alone could make up a sequel.