Spoiler- Free Thoughts on “11/22/63” by Stephen King

Summary: Life can turn on a dime—or stumble into the extraordinary, as it does for Jake Epping, a high school English teacher in a Maine town. While grading essays by his GED students, Jake reads a gruesome, enthralling piece penned by janitor Harry Dunning: fifty years ago, Harry somehow survived his father’s sledgehammer slaughter of his entire family. Jake is blown away…but an even more bizarre secret comes to light when Jake’s friend Al, owner of the local diner, enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession—to prevent the Kennedy assassination. How? By stepping through a portal in the diner’s storeroom, and into the era of Ike and Elvis, of big American cars, sock hops, and cigarette smoke…Finding himself in warmhearted Jodie, Texas, Jake begins a new life. But all turns in the road lead to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald. The course of history is about to be rewritten…and become heart-stoppingly suspenseful.

The best way I can describe this book is it’s Stephen King for people who don’t like Stephen King. Many of his tropes are in evidence (Maine, alcoholism, dumb rednecks, religious fanaticism, etc), but they are mercifully kept in the background, making their inclusion more tolerable.

I enjoyed the idea of time being like a sentient being that sets upon Jake like white blood cells on a foreign body, throwing unexpected obstacles in his way to change the future. It’s an interesting concept that I don’t think has been done in many novels. We’ve seen how changes to the past have detrimental consequences for the future, but we haven’t seen the past itself as a living organism. It raises a lot of interesting questions about destiny. If the past resists change, does that mean time itself has already been written and we’re doomed to follow one track forever?

I was genuinely on the edge of my seat wondering how King would wrap this whole thing up and, without giving anything away, I was not disappointed.

It is a long book (like many of King’s novels), but it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a big novel. The pacing is always snappy and even the more subdued scenes have a steady forward-moving momentum that makes it seem like everything is in aid of the overall plot and not just an excuse for the writer to lolly-gag.

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However….that’s not to say I had no problems with it.

In fact, there’s one issue that dogged me for a greater part of the novel: Jake’s motivation to stop the Kennedy assassination.

In all honesty, when you look at all the variables….this is actually a pretty stupid idea.

Jake’s hypothesis is that if Kennedy had lived he would have put a stop to the Vietnam War which would invariably save the lives of thousands of people.

Without getting too political,  JFK was objectively a competent leader who did more good in his tenure than harm. However, the question of whether or not Kennedy would have chosen to continue the war had he lived is an on-going debate even today. In fact, many Vietnam historians both left and right of center, believe he would have continued to keep troops overseas regardless of any personal hang-ups he had with the conflict.

Simply put, Jake is banking on a lot–and I mean a lot–when it comes to the potential outcome of saving Kennedy.

Imagine sacrificing six years of you life, virtually everyone you’ve ever met, all modern amenities including medicine, your freedom, and potentially your life, all based on a theory. 

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I might be more willing to buy his dedication if he was a public defender or former military with a checkered past he needed to atone for, but he was an English teacher with a squeaky clean record. It wasn’t as if he had become a jaded post-modern lump that wanted more fulfillment in life either. From what I could tell, he was perfectly content living as a high school teacher in a small town. He really didn’t have a reason to dump his life so quickly, family or no.

I would be lying if I said this ruined my reading experience, but these were thoughts that followed me as I read deeper and deeper and the stakes grew ever higher.

Even as someone who normally does not gravitate to King’s writing, I found this to be a very engaging and entertaining read. I recommend anyone, regardless of literary tastes, give it a try.

It’s suspenseful, dramatic, engrossing and overall good fun.

8/10

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