Saturday, March 3, 2018

Book Reviews: 11/22/63

by Stephen King
This 2011 novel by Stephen King is a very long book. 11/22/63 is just short of 1100 pages. The novel wasn't exactly a chore to read, King is simply too good of a writer for that, but it was a serious investment of time. 11/22/63 isn't a horror novel; it's not full of creepy crawlies or things that go bump in the night. It is speculative fiction. King, as he is prone to do, leaves all sorts of Easter egg hints to his other works throughout 11/22/63. The referenced King novels which were obvious to me were Christine, The Dead Zone, Insomnia, and IT though I'm sure I missed others.  

John Fogerty wrote the lyrics in his song Proud Mary "And I never lost one minute of sleeping/Worrying about the way things might have been".  In Candide, Voltaire created a pompous philosopher Pangloss who dismissed complaints by saying "This is the best of all possible worlds". In The Silmarillion J.R.R. Tolkien's God stand-in tells the Satan analogue that there is nothing that Satan can ever do that God hasn't already anticipated and will use to bring some greater good which Satan never could have conceived of bringing about. Omar Khayam wrote that "The moving finger writes and having writ moves on. Nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy years wash out a word of it." 

Many self-help gurus and life coaches urge us to look forward, not backwards. How many people enjoy spending time, romantic or otherwise, with someone who's always complaining about the people who did him/her wrong back in sixth grade or how they didn't get this job 15 years ago and thus all the bad fortune they've had since is not their fault. It's annoying, no? Despite what some physics may prove and some religions may claim, humans only experience time in one direction. We can't stop it. We can't rewind it.  We can't transmit information back in time to ourselves. And we can't even be certain events in our life impacted us the way that we think they did. So we have no choice but to look forward.

Changing the past and impacting our present and future is something that many people dream of doing. In 11/22/63, the book title is the date of the JFK assassination, King imagines a world where a Maine high school English teacher can change the past. In 2011 Jake Eppling befriends Al, the proprietor of a local diner. Al claims to have something really important to show Jake. The next day Al is shocked to see that Al appears to have aged decades in just one day. Al says that he is dying, and has a secret to share. Al's diner has a time traveling portal. This portal takes people back to September of 1958. No matter how long you stay in the past when you return to 2011 only two minutes in 2011 have elapsed. You can indeed change the past but going back through the portal a second time apparently resets everything. 
Al is a JFK fan, sports guru, and history buff. Al intended to visit the past and stay there long enough to kill Lee Harvey Oswald, once he determined that Oswald was the sole shooter, but due to his age and health he ran out of time. Al believes Jake can take up his mission and prevent the JFK assassination. 

If Jake does this Al thinks the U.S. will be placed on a better path, one where the Vietnam War never took place, segregation dies a quicker death, and several other historical horribles never occur. 

Intrigued, and armed with enough sports knowledge to bet on winners from the past, Jake decides to do what Al asks. But before trying to change something as important as the fate of a U.S. President, Jake does a test run to see if changing the past really does change the future (his present). Jake goes back to 1958 to alter the sad family history of a learning-impaired GED janitor who was one of his students. Jake learns that there are levels of complexities to what he is trying to do.

King does an absolutely masterful job of depicting the wonder and joy that is true love. That, not the JFK storyline is the book's centerpiece. Not being a woman I couldn't say for sure but I believe that Jake's love interest Sadie is one of King's better written female characters. King makes a few nods to some of his more explicitly outre stories, but the ugliest evil here is the domestic abuse which men do to women. King emphasizes this over and over again. King has a keen eye for the lies that abusers tell themselves and other people. I appreciated some of the moral dilemmas Jake encounters. His style and language are occasionally beyond odd to people of a world long gone. 

As King mused in the afterword, if anything he downplayed the level of vitriol on display in early sixties Texas in general and Dallas in particular. This hatred was expressed towards JFK, black people, liberals, northerners, Jews, etc. Unfortunately, King often makes his racists cartoonishly malicious people who are wicked in every way. That's not how it was then or is now. It would have been closer to reality and more challenging for the reader and for Jake if some of the otherwise decent men and women that Jake was befriending and in one case falling in love with would have earnestly explained to Jake why they were Klan members or how they slapped their black housekeeper for "sass" or why segregation was a good thing for everyone.  Those feelings were not unusual sentiments for 1960s white Texas residents to have.

Let me repeat that this is a very long book. Most of the middle section is akin to To Sir With Love or Friday Night Lights. I thought those portions dragged. King comes down very firmly on one side of the JFK murder conspiracy question, a different side than I am on and for that matter (according to King) a different side than his wife is on, but that's neither here not there. 11/22/63 is an extended meditation on love, loss, nostalgia, the cycle of life, and causation issues raised in the classic Ray Bradbury time travel tale A Sound of Thunder. If you are queasy about King, there's no grossout horror here. Much of the book is a paean to love. Reading this book, you'll probably recall events or tragedies in your life and wonder whether you would be the same person you are today without them. Speaking of that King reminisces about being driven to high school in a converted hearse, which makes me think something about fate and omens.
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