Scribner, $35.00, 2011, 849 pps
Review by Wayne C. Rogers
Until I finished Stephen King’s newest novel, 11/22/63, I’d only cried at the end of three of his books over the last thirty-four years. I remember tears filling my eyes during the scene in The Stand where Stu Redman is left behind by his team to die as they slowly make their way to Las Vegas and the confrontation with Randall Flagg. I was then caught off guard by Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone and let some tears roll when he died at the end. After that, it was nearly twenty years before Mr. King once again caught me from behind with The Green Mile. I came close to wailing at the end of that novel because I thought John Coffey would somehow survive and be released from prison. I remember writing to King and asking how he could kill off such a great character. He probably thought I was a total idiot.
The thing is, I cared so much for these characters that I wanted to see them survive their ordeals, but Stu Redman was the only one who made it through to the end. This is what lifts Stephen King to the role of a great storyteller. He creates characters you get emotionally involved with and want to see overcome the challenges in life that are thrown at their way. I think the reasoning here is that if they can overcome the hardships, then maybe we can too. When they don’t, it’s like watching ourselves die, and that, as they say, is a tough pill to swallow.
Now, after fifteen years, Stephen King has done it again with 11/22/63. When I first heard the premise of this novel around the beginning of 2011, I got goose bumps on my arms. I was born in 1950 and was thirteen when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I remember being out on the athletic field during gym class and seeing another student come running out from the main school building to tell our coach about the President’s death. Since that was the last class of the day, the coach told us to get dressed and go home. I spent the entire weekend with my nose glued to the television (along with my parents) watching everything unfold in slow motion from replays of the shooting, to Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as the new President, to the shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby, and finally the walk up Pennsylvania Avenue by Jackie, Carolyn and John-John. I believe that moment in time affected me as strongly as it did hundreds of thousands of other American citizens around the country. Even people who didn’t like JFK or his politics experienced a deep loss at his passing.
As I said, I got goose bumps when I read the premise of 11/22/63 about a man travelling into the past to prevent Kennedy’s assassination. If we could, how many Americans would raise their hands and volunteer to go back in time to try and save him, knowing that he or she might die in the process? I suspect it would be a high count because the world changed when JFK was killed. I don’t think it became a better place. Of course, had JFK lived, there’s no guarantee it would have turned out better, either. Still-
Okay, it’s a look at the novel.
Jake Epping is an English school teacher in Maine. One summer night after an adult class, he’s reading a paper by one of his students – Harry Dunning, a janitor at the school. The paper deals with the night the janitor’s life changed forever … the night when his father murdered his mother, sister, two brothers, and crippled him for life. That the paper moves Jake emotionally is beyond question. It prompts him to get to know Harry Dunning and to find more about the horrible night.
Later, when the owner of a hamburger diner shows Jake a way to go back in time, an idea starts to jell in the teacher’s mind. The owner of the diner has spent nearly five years of his life in the past with the intent of keeping John F. Kennedy from being assassinated. Cancer, however, brought his mission to a complete stop. Now, he wants Jake to take over. One of the main problems, however, is that the time portal only takes you back to the fall of 1958. You then have five years to spend while you wait for the right moment to act.
Jakes decides to give it a shot, but first he wants to see if he can prevent Harry Dunning’ family from being killed on that fateful night in 1958. If he can accomplish that, then maybe he has a chance of saving Kennedy.
Here are the basic rules for time travel in 11/22/63. You can go back to 1958 as many times as you want, but each time you do, you erase any changes that were made and have to start over from scratch. When you leave 2011, go back to 1958, and then return to the present, only two minutes have passed in our time. You, however, have aged whatever amount of time was spent in the past. Another rule is that time doesn’t want to be changed and will attempt to stop you by throwing unexpected problems in your path. A third and very important rule is that for every change you make, it will have a profound effect on the future with the possibility of it being more negative than it was originally meant to be. This is called The Butterfly Effect. A fourth rule is that should you not be able to accomplish your goal, you can always return and try again. You’re also older, but with more insight into what will transpire. In other words, you now have first-hand experience as well as the knowledge on what to avoid.
Jake has to go back in time twice to complete his mission dealing with the murder of the Dunning family. The first time isn’t as successful as he would’ve hoped, but the second journey is because he now knows what to watch out for and what his stumbling blocks will be. This gives him the encouragement to tackle the assassination of John F. Kennedy five years down the road. But first, he has to find a place to live and to wait out the time.
Leaving Maine, Jake travels to Florida where he gets a job as a substitute teacher. He also places large bets with bookies and wins a lot of money. Of course, he already knows in advance who’s going to win the games and matches. The bookies immediately become suspicious. They don’t mind taking your money, but they hate having to pay off big on long shots. One thing Jake has learned to do is to trust his instincts. When his instincts start shouting at him to get out of Dodge, he realizes it’s time to leave Florida. He manages to leave just before his house is blown up.
Then, heading to New Orleans for a while, Jake eventually makes his way to the Dallas/Fort Worth area Texas. He scouts out the locations of where he knows Oswald will be living in the future. Until that moment arrives, he has to find a place that is soothing to the soul and where he feels safe and at home. He finds such a place in Jodie, Texas. This is a small community a few hours from Dallas, but it’s just the kind of place he’s looking for to spend the next three-or-four years. He soon becomes a substitute English teacher there, which leads into a full-time position. Teaching is what he loves, and he has a special gift for the job that makes students want to learn and to become all they can be. Sounds like the Army, doesn’t it? Everybody seems to love Jake Epping, though he now calls himself George Amberson.
In time a lady by the name of Sadie Clayton becomes the new librarian at the high school where he teaches. He doesn’t want to say it’s love at first sight, but it is to the rest of us. He’s met the woman of his dreams … someone he can live the rest of his life with and raise a family. The only problem (and it’s a big one) is that he’s from the future and there are things he can’t tell Sadie about himself.
In time, the fact that Jake has no past catches up to him in ways he never would’ve expected and to a large degree he loses everything he holds precious in his life.
After Jodie, Jake focuses on Lee Harvey Oswald and stopping him before the murder of the President can take place. He wants to take out Oswald before the assassination attempt, but if the ex-Marine isn’t acting along, it won’t stop Kennedy from being murdered.
All, however, is not lost between Jake and Sadie. When you love someone in a way that transcends time and they love you equally, the two of you simply don’t walk away from each other no matter what the problem is. It’s impossible because love is a powerful force … maybe even stronger than the past and changing it.
Anyway, it won’t be long before Jake has to save the life of the woman he loves and then face the bookies in Dallas who already know about him from Florida. Whether or not Jake can now save the President will be in question. As we already know the past has a way of putting obstacles in front of you to keep any changes from taking place. Jake will have insurmountable odds to face and overcome as he rushes to change destiny.
As to what happens, well, you’re just going to have to read the book.
One thing I can tell you is though this novel is nearly 900 pages in length, there are very few action scenes. You have one at the Dunning house on Jake’s first attempt to save them. Then there’s one where Jakes attempts to save Sadie’s life when someone from her past comes to do her harm. Next is the scene with the bookies. Finally, in the last hundred pages, is the scene of Jake trying to get to Oswald in time before the assassination can take place. In all, I would say the action scenes total less than forty-to-fifty pages of this very long novel. The important thing is you don’t notice that because you’re so wrapped up in the character of Jake Epping and what happens to him. Once Sadie enters the picture, you’re then rooting for both of them to make it. I don’t know of many writers who could succeed with a book this size and written on so many levels. I had a hard time putting the novel down at times. Though it’s long, I still managed to read it in less than three weeks. In my younger days it would have been only one week.
Another vital thing here is the ending. That’s what hit me in the heart, and I don’t want to give anything away. I don’t know whether to thank Steve for it, or his son, Joe. King mentions in the afterword that Joe Hill suggested a better ending for the book and he decided to go with it. For me, the ending is what shot this novel from the “A” list to the “A+” list. Just a couple of pages grabbed my old heart, shook it back and forth, and made me cry happily about love and its power to override everything standing in its way. Not very many books have been able to do that to me over the last fifty years.
So, is 11/22/63 a winner? Damn right, it is. For me, this is King’s best novel in over a decade … maybe even three, if you don’t count The Green Mile. This is a book the author attempted to write in 1972, but it took thirty-eight more years before he could actually succeed in creating this world for the reader to live in. This is what great writing and storytelling is all about. This is the type of book you don’t want to end, but know it must. And, when the novel finally wraps up, you feel a sense of happiness from the ending; yet, also a sense of loss at not having the main characters in your life any longer. I know I did.
This is also why I call Stephen King the Maestro. Like James Bond, nobody does it better!