A cardinal sin I must confess from the beginning: I have never read a Stephen King book. That is, until I picked up his 2011 novel “11/22/63”. Upon finishing the book, I have a deep regret that I had not read King before.
The tale involving time travelling to 1958 and Jake Epping (the lead character) attempting to stop the assassination of John F Kennedy is a masterwork. I have no other King book in the recesses of my memory to compare this book with but if he consistently writes stories like this one, I probably should devour his back catalog.
Epping is an English teacher at Lisbon Falls High School in Maine (I hear, a frequent setting for King’s books and the state where he resides in real life). Epping and his wife Christy are divorced due to Christy’s ongoing alcoholism. He lives a rather ordinary and simplistic existence. As a teacher, he assigns his students a thematic writing task, “The Day that Changed My Life.” All of the accounts are boring to Epping except for one written by student Harry Dunning. This horrific account involves Dunning’s alcoholic father murdering his mother and three siblings on Halloween eve 1958. Harry was left with permanent brain damage. Epping is deeply moved and an impression is made.
In town, there is a diner owned by Al Templeton. Rumors swirl around this eatery as Al sells his burgers and other dishes really cheap. Does he use dog or cat meat? In June 211, Al invites Jake to meet him at the diner. After Al’s prompting, Jake notices that Al has aged significantly to a creepy and unrealistic degree. Suspiciously, Al states he wants to show Jake something in his pantry. This “something” ends up being a time portal to a singular date in the recent past- 1958.
The rules governing the time travel experience are as follows:
-Every time a person from 2011 transports to the past, they arrive always on September 9, 1958 at 11:58am.
-No matter how long the time traveler stays in the past- minutes, hours, days, years- only two minutes pass in 2011.
-Past events can be changed and when the traveler goes back to 2011, those changes are reflected through the timeline into the present. Every time a person goes back to 1958, the journey serves as an effective reset to the timeline.
Diner owner Al had made his trips to the past, had significantly aged and is now on the verge of dying. He lets the story’s protagonist in on his goal with the time travel: to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F Kennedy on 11/22/1963. To Jake he gives maps and detailed journal notes on Oswald’s whereabouts leading up to that historic day.
At this moment in the story, King takes a fascinating premise and proceeds deeper into compelling philosophical and moral questions. Al believes that stopping the assassination of JFK would stop the escalation of the Vietnam war and perhaps stop a succession of terrible events and assassinations of important leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. Jake recognizes the idealism of this grand idea. Even if the assassination of JFK was stopped, would somebody else shoot him a week later? Would the president get in a fatal car accident a month later? Maybe JFK would have a heart attack and die shortly thereafter? There were no guarantees. Changing the past on this scale would create a drastically different future but it would be a history that had been rewritten and thereby would be unpredictable. In a general sense, things may get worse, not better.
The two men also hash out the idea of predestination or fate. Was a monumental event in United States history- indeed world history- like the assassination of JFK supposed to happen according to the universe or a higher divine plan? If people had the power to change a massive event on this scale, should they?
The idea though ends up being too tempting. When faced with this kind of elaborate opportunity, wouldn’t we all be tempted to try? Remembering Harry Dunning’s horrific essay from his English class, Jake decides to test the timeline change by attempting to stop Dunning’s alcoholic father from killing his family and maiming Harry. A test case in the attempt to save JFK that would have significant impact on history involving people who were, theoretically speaking, supposed to not go on living.
What follows is a gripping and thrilling story of Jake Epping’s time portal travels and his attempts to rewrite history and distort the future. King’s story is way too complex to wrap different threads of his work up into nice and neat happily ever afters for everyone. Each path that Jake chooses could have very good consequences and perhaps severely bad ones. This all becomes a question on who is exactly affected and to what extent.
Lingering at the center is the question regarding if Jake will actually complete his mission of saving JFK. He meets a girl, Sadie Dunhill, in Texas who tempts him to forget the mission and just settle down to live a normal life in the recent past. Not only that, but how does he explain to her who he really is and where he is from? Also for consideration, would other forces stop Jake from succeeding because, as noted earlier, major events like the assassination of a president are just meant to happen as they did?
Stephen King is 67 years old which would have made him 11 in 1958. This is the time that he grew up in. He writes about this time period with a lot of fondness and nostalgia. He describes how root beer used to taste and different cultural experiences in small town America. However, he doesn’t gloss over some of the evil that was a product of this time such as racism and segregation.
What people say about King is true. He is an incredibly gifted writer and buried in this top-notch story are passages containing amazingly beautiful prose. Here are some of my favorites from the book:
“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 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.”
“Life turns on a dime. Sometimes towards us, but more often it spins away, flirting and flashing as it goes: so long, honey, it was good while it lasted, wasn’t it?”
“Like all sweet dreams, it will be brief, but brevity makes sweetness, doesn’t it? Yes, I think so. Because when the time is gone, you can never get it back.”
King is known for horror and monsters. I have seen some of the films without having read any of the books sadly. 11/22/63 features none of the traditional monsters of King’s imagination. In this book, the boogeyman is time itself. Even if people could manipulate time to some extent- and oh do we try even without time travel- time will eventually come for us, stalking us no matter what safeguards or security we try to invent. And this is how King in a book that is a historical, time-travel story with romance still haunts us all the way through.