For Jake Epping, in Stephen King’s 11/22/63, it’s not a hard call: he’d save a few lives, up to and including that of John F. Kennedy. Sheesh — and here I was thinking only of getting rich by betting small sums on events to which I already knew the outcome.
King’s protagonist does some of that, too, and has other experiences that are a lot less pleasant and predictable. “The past is obdurate,” it turns out, and doesn’t want to be changed. The magnitude of the proposed change correlates directly to the magnitude of resistance. Try to stop a presidential assassination, and you can expect a few complications.
I like this book a lot, nearly all 600-plus pages of it. As far as I know this is the first time King has dabbled in time travel, and in the afterward he swears it will be his last. But what a great addition to the genre. Even as his premise demolishes the laws of physics, King adds some strict laws of his own, and as always this is what makes his fantastic yarns so believable.
You can’t just dial up a time to visit, for example, like in Back to the Future. Instead, you discover an invisible portal in a storage room that takes you to one time and one place only: 11:58 a.m. on Sept. 9, 1958, Lisbon Falls, Maine. There you’re free to interact with the good citizens of the Eisenhower era — and, if you happen to run a diner, buy bulk hamburger at 1958 prices. But use the portal again, and everything is reset to zero. Any influence you may have had is erased. Or so it seems. What this means in practice is that anyone who wants to keep JFK alive is going to have to live in the past for more than five years. And swear off time-traveling forever after.
What makes 11/22/63 especially appealing is the amount of research a big-time writer like King can bring to bear on it. His 1958 in many ways seems more real than our 2011. He also spent a lot of time with experts on the Kennedy assassination, and even consulted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin for some insight on what might have happened had Oswald been made to miss. (I sharply disagree with those conclusions, but it’s his book.)
It’s not perfect. There are long passages where Jake Epping’s romance with a school librarian begins to seem like King is channeling Nicholas Sparks, and as always his few attempts at comic relief are pretty awkward. Finally, the McGuffin — keeping Kennedy alive — seems inadequate for a 30-something protagonist and more than a little naive this late in the day.
Still, I was turning those pages at a rapid clip. I remain an unapologetic fan of Stephen King as a story-teller and recommend this one highly. If I could go back in time I’d take this manuscript and publish it under my own name …