11/22/63 is the latest novel from Stephen King in which a divorced high school teacher Jake Epping meets an aging cancer-afflicted fry cook who reveals he has a time portal in his diner that transports you to 1958. The fry cook explains that it is possible to make changes in the past, then travel back to the present to witness the effect of these changes. However, entering the portal afterwards ‘resets’ the new timeline. The fry cook who is on his deathbed gives Jake an assignment – to travel back to the past and prevent the assassination of JFK. The fry cook argues that the prevention of Kennedy’s assassination would stop the Vietnam War and could potentially save the lives of millions of people around the world.
11/22/63 is a book that I anticipate will have limited appeal with most readers. On face value it is a fictional tale about time travel and alternative history but upon further reading, it becomes a rather saccharine love story set in a rural American town in the late Fifties. It is as slow paced as the lifestyle described in the little town of Jodie. I don’t know whether that is something that would interest many people.
Having said that, I personally liked the story quite a bit and I’ll draw on a comparison with a couple of recent tv shows to explain why. Two high profile genre shows that aired recently were Terra Nova and Alcatraz. Terra Nova is a show about people living in a planet populated by dinosaurs who seemingly have little interest or curiousity in dinosaurs. Alcatraz is a show about prisoners from the famous island prison disappearing in the 1960s, re-appearing in modern day and subsequently having no interest in their new surroundings beyond committing some random crimes. Both shows creating an interesting premise only to fill the tale with characters who have little sense of wonder about their fantastic surroundings.
When Jake Epping time travels to the past, he becomes so absorbed by 1950s America that he almost loses sight of his purpose for being there in the first place. I like the detailed observations in Jake’s narration. He has the same wide-eyed reaction that you could imagine yourself having if you travelled sixty years back. There is a feeling of wonderment at the optimistic cheery culture that generally pervades public behaviour in Fifties America but also moments where there is revulsion at the prevalence of ugly racism – such as when Epping uses a public toilet and observes there is a seperate section for ‘coloured people.’ What I like about 11/22/63 is that is has a cool concept but then actually follows through by giving us a hero who actually takes the time to notice and appreciate his environment.
As I mentioned earlier, 11/22/63 is unashamedly a love story. Jake meets and falls in love with a librarian named Sadie. Jake has to manage the tricky balance of tracking down Lee Harvey Oswald and maintaining his secret identity whilst trying to development a relationship with a woman he becomes genuinely attracted to. Sadie warms to Jake (who adopts the alias George Amberson) but gradually suspects that he holds many secrets from her.
Something that is rather strange about the later works of Stephen King is that even though he doesn’t really do many horror stories any more, he does still have a tendency to go into overdrive when describing acts of violence. So while the rest of his prose in this book might have a laconic and relaxed tone, Horror Author Stephen King occasionally rears his head and when he describes a car accident or an act of domestic abuse, he goes into overdrive with his blood lust, describing details of crushed skulls and maimed flesh in disturbing levels of detail. I wonder if he’s like that in real life too?
Sporadic bursts of ultra-violence aside, I thought this was a fun story in which I appreciated both the time travel and the romance. Although a little slow in parts, it all builds to an interesting and eventful ending as Jake tries to put a stop to JFK’s date with a bullet.