Stephen King * 11/22/63 Book review

I must say I love this book. It’s hefty in size but unlike Under the domeInsomnia or Needful Things, it wasn’t filled with unnecessary description of people and places but filled with stories about life and change. And in the middle of it, the question: If you were able to change history, would you do it? And why?

If I’m thinking about the book now, a few weeks later after reading it, I remember clearly the plots surrounding Lee Harvey Oswald, the escape of JFK and the Jitterbug. Jimla. I think I got it.

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For me, King does what very few authors manage – he turns fast-paced genre fiction into well-written, thought-provoking literature.

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In order to avoid holding this giant and make my hands hurt, I decided to have it play as an audiobook in my car and God, it was enthralling. I loved how this book was many things. It’s an extremely well-researched piece of historical fiction; it’s a fascinating look at time travel science fiction (is it possible to change the past? What is the cost of doing so?); it’s a small town thriller; and it’s a love story.

King has this strange way of turning the most fantastical plots into stories about people who feel very real. He writes detailed and honest character portraits, so that these characters become so vivid and realistic, likable and flawed, that we so easily believe in everything that happens to them.

If you don’t already know, this book is about a man called Jake Epping who – through his friend, Al – discovers a portal that takes him to 1958, where he takes over Al’s obsessive mission to prevent the Kennedy assassination. He establishes a new life in the past, in a world filled with big American cars, rock’n’roll, and shameless racism, sexism and homophobia.

“If there is love, smallpox scars are as pretty as dimples. I’ll love your face no matter what is looks like. Because it’s yours”

The amount of research King did is evident. He paints an intricate portrait of this time – simultaneously portraying an exciting, dreamy era full of different fashions, music, and the best root beer ever for 10 cents… and showing the darker side: segregation and the two doors and three signs – “Men” on one door, “Women” on the other door, and “Colored” leading to a plank of wood over a small stream. He makes this era seem like a bright, amazing, creepy nightmare.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. Unlike some of King’s other works, the 800 pages didn’t feel like too much to me and they just seemed to fly by. So glad I finally read it.

“For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.”

The stories

I think there are a few stories that are told in the book well before the subject starts. The story of Al, the diner owner, very succinctly covers his time travels and what he did to prevent a girl from getting crippled by a stray bullet.

Jake’s own story how he saves his favourite A+ lit student’s family not once but twice as in the first run the father still manages to kill a kid.

Jake’s life as a teacher in the 60’s and the school play of Mice and Men, the death of a student, the love interest and the life she had with her ex. Sadie Dunhill’s story of the broom in the bed got me shaking with outrage… and I wasn’t surprised at all to see the brain-damaged ex make an entrance and cut her face with a knife before committing suicide.

The last life that Jake secretly held was being the watchful neighbour of the Oswalds, as seen from the eyes of a bye-stander. Their daily lives, squabbles and joys were observed, recorded via a Japanese bug and even when the entire thing went down, Jake could not forget that Oswald was still a man, a father, a husband, a son.

Cookie points for Derry

imagesBevy from the Levy and Richie from the ditchie from “IT”  showed up to make a cameo. Jake, aka George Anderson, has a lovely chat with them!!!! I was so crazy reading this part. Some of the towns people also talk about some of the stuff that happened when you know who was around. And don’t mention clowns in the town! It was just bittersweet to me because I could picture some of the things from the other book with the descriptions in this book.

This book wasn’t that, either. It was exactly what I had (naively) been trying not to read: a horror. Your basic stabby horror, with a slight twist. In this book, the immutability of the past, its obduracy to cling to what has already been, is the thing with teeth. I know that doesn’t sound traditionally horrific, but its manifestation is that when the main character is trying to do something that would result in immediately changing the outcome of a big event–such as an event in which someone originally got killed–this aspect of the past intervenes repeatedly and violently to keep him from doing it.

Main themes

1) Romantic involvement – wonderful love story. You will be touched, laugh, cry….
2) Time travel concept – go back in history (to the same point in time) and “re-do’s” are allowed… — a wormhole to 1958… go back to the same time, same place
3) Try to change a historic event – the assassination of JFK — Would you do it if you could — and should you?

You are entering 1963

card-1963The structure of the novel is as follows: guy finds out he can easily go back in time to 1958, to the same minute of the same day each time he goes. Al has this whole thing set up with money from that time, instructions on Oswald’s movements, what to buy, what to do.. it’s been a long time in the making for Al so he’s prepared and gets Jake ready as much as he can for the journey.

He returns to 1958, re-stops that crime, and then spends the better part of five years waiting for Kennedy’s assassination attempt. That’s the middle of the book: him sitting around in the early 1960s, in a holding pattern, scoping out downtown Dallas and following Lee Harvey Oswald from a distance so he can convince himself that he really doesn’t like this guy. It takes at least 600 pages for 1963 to arrive.

The decision of what to do to Oswald is presented as simple and binary, in a way that bugged me throughout the book. If our hero finds out that Oswald is the lone person behind the assassination, then the only course of action considered is for our guy to kill him. There’s some momentary advance remorse about that, but not much, because Oswald is known to have killed Kennedy in the real timeline. The thing I still don’t get is, in the real timeline, Oswald died as a direct result of having been arrested for Kennedy’s murder. Which means that a person who simply kept Oswald from being present on the parade route that day (by any means necessary, gory ones included–slit the guy’s arm open with a knife, for example) would save both Kennedy’s life and Oswald’s. No murder necessary. King doesn’t even give this idea lip service–killing is presented as the only possible plan in order to get the assassination stopped.

tumblr_inline_o54pjfyfzx1tbsl8q_540The engine of the book is the main character’s time travel journey back from 2011 to 1958 and the years immediately following, but nothing that he ever says makes this feel like reality. The narrator is supposed to be 35 in 2011, which places him in my own age cohort–but I think even someone 10 or 20 years older than I am, given the time-travel option, would have a lot of strong visceral reactions to the way the world was back then. King has him comment on the fact that root beer tastes “fuller” from a 1958 soda fountain than it does in the present–but frankly, that doesn’t give me much to go on, and he uses that same descriptor every time he references the root beer (an awful lot) without adding to the picture. And that’s it: he does nothing else to show how the experience of drinking at a 1958 soda fountain would be different from the experience that someone born in the late 1970s would be used to at a diner in the 21st century. It’s like this with so many things: either our hero doesn’t seem to notice all the little differences in daily life, or he treats these with a nostalgia borrowed from the author.

Life turns on a dime.

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6 Comments

    1. The book is gorgeous! I was expecting loads of historical theories but the Lee Oswald shooting is only in the last 50 odd pages or so. People called it bloated with description, I called it 3 stories in one.

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