Tracing The Trails : 11/22/63
This review was originally written for the King For A Year blog project. Please click here to check out the site and check out some great reviews of King’s work by other guest authors.
While I have been a fan of Stephen King for most of my life, this book in particular is more personal for me, not because of the subject matter necessarily, as much as the time when it came into my life.
I was a huge Stephen King fan growing up. HUGE. I read him often, and there were some titles in particular that were practically falling apart at the binding, by the time I finished high school. It began with the fascination and thrill I got from seeing the handful of hardbacks on my father’s bookshelf, the intimidating “grown up books”. As I became more adept as a reader, I grew to love his ability to weave a story and build characters.
As I grew older though, I drifted away from King. There are any number of reasons for this. I was reading much more academically for school and had less time to read recreationally but also, I was a different person and, of course, he was a different writer. I think that it is to be expected that over the course of your life, you become less interested in the things that fascinated you as a child. As the nineties started to wane, my enthusiasm for his writing did the same, and my conclusion at the time was simply that that portion of my life was done, and behind me.
How ironic then, that the book which turned me around, and brought me back into the fold, ended up being a book centered around time travel.
At the time this came out, I had found myself in the midst of a rekindling of my passion for reading. As I had a commute to work and several hours in the morning by myself, I had started listening to audiobooks. I listened to most of the older King books which I had grown up on, and really started to rediscover the writing that I had loved so much. I finally got around to finishing the Dark Tower series, and I decided that maybe I needed to give his newer material another try. 11/22/63 was getting a lot of press and publicity leading up to its release, so when the time came, on the day the book was released, I did something that I hadn’t done since 1996.
I bought a new Stephen King book.
I did so nervously, with little expectations and, to be perfectly honest, I was totally unprepared for what was in store for me. I was blown away by the book. The story and the depth of the narrative was so amazing, it was hard to believe that I had actually turned my back on him for so long.
The concept of the book is simple enough and the subject of theoretical discussions, many times over. If you could go back in time, would you try and stave off or prevent some horrible tragedy? Would you kill Hitler? Would you try and stop the Titanic from sinking?
Would you try and prevent the JFK assassination?
The story itself is centered around English Teacher Jake Epping, who finds himself drawn into a quest of sorts, from the unlikeliest of places. He is approached one day in a local diner, by the proprietor, who he has become friends with. Jake’s friend, Al, shows him a doorway to a special portal. This particular portal allows people to travel through time. In an interesting twist on the device, Al reveals that whenever a person goes through, they are transported to a very specific date in 1958, September 9, at precisely 11:58 a.m.
Initially, Al had been using the portal for the most mundane of tasks, such as going back and buying food for the diner at 1958 prices, but eventually he makes the decision to take on the personal mission to try and prevent one of the worst tragedies in American history, the assassination of President Kennedy. The reason why he has brought Jake into this, is because in the course of trying to accomplish his goal, Al has been diagnosed with a terminal cancer. He asks Jake to take up the mantle, so to speak, and to make all efforts to see this task out to the end.
From the start, King makes a conscious decision with his world building that I am a big fan of, namely that in a story that involves any kind of magic, I always prefer to see that magic existing within a limiting framework of rules. With 11/22/63, being able to go back in time doesn’t mean to simply set the date on the car’s dashboard, and rev up for eighty eight miles per hour. As I mentioned already, each trip through the door puts the person back to the exact same moment in history, every time, without exception, but there are other rules as well, ways in which the portal operates. Each time someone jumps back in time, they essentially “reset” the system and any changes that might have been made on the last trip are nullified, clearing the board so to speak. Also, and this one is a bit more abstract, if, while in the past, you try to accomplish some kind of historical change, the unseen forces of time and fate will put up obstacles of varying degree in order to prevent that change from happening. The larger the change, the larger the resistance.
I appreciate this because it sets limits on the story, and creates an interesting predicament in terms of preventing the assassination. Obviously, if Jake is to try and conduct such a massive, far reaching change, there is bound to be unprecedented amounts of resistance put in his path. The implication seems to be that Al’s illness is largely due to his own efforts in that regard. Second, if Jake manages to succeed, the gate could no longer be used again, as it would immediately reverse what he had accomplished. Finally, and what I would find most compelling to this system, is that Jake can’t just put himself into the book depository, moments before the shooting, so that he can surprise Oswald and stop him. If he is going to stop the assassination, he will have to actually live in the past, for some five years, before he will be able to accomplish his mission.
I don’t want to get into a lot of detail about the plot of the book, and risk spoiling anything but, I can say that in true King fashion, there is a significant amount of book before you even get to the main story. Whenever I hear people complain about King being too long winded, or about how he needs to use a better editor, that he’s being paid by the word, I feel that they fail to understand that King’s writing is often about the journey, as much as the mechanics of the story itself. As Jake is getting the feel for life in 1958, and how he can affect change, we get to see his process, his trial and error as he tries to get his legs underneath him. We get to experience the immensity of the journey ourselves.
The portion of the book which takes place in the past is divided up into several major sections. In the first, he starts out in a very familiar Maine town, one that we have visited or has been referenced many times. One of my favorite parts of King’s writing is how he interweaves his books and this is no exception. The reader gets to share a short visit with a few old friends that I guarantee will make the King fan in you squeal. Moving on from here, Jake makes his way to Texas, where he takes on a job as a teacher, and has a short lived romantic connection, that reminded me quite a bit of of Richard Matheson’s Somewhere In Time. Moving on to Dallas, we get to the heart of the book, and Jake’s efforts to track down Oswald, with the hope of stopping the assassination before it happens in the first place.
By the end of the book, we are left with a familiar, yet chilling image of what can happen as a result of tinkering with the past, regardless of the best of intentions. Throughout the book, Jake has a number of encounters with a strange being, seemingly a wino who Al had named the Yellow Card Man”. This individual takes on a number of different variations and forms throughout the book and by the end, we learn from him that there is actually more to the mechanics of the portal than Al or Jake were ever aware of. He shares information with Jake that sheds a new light on the book as a whole, and puts their choices their actions into a whole new light. King does what he does best here, and of course we find out that things are not as they seem and not as clear cut as maybe we had initially thought.
I wanted to take a moment and discuss one other issue briefly. Ironically, I have had several conversations recently about this subject, namely, that of writers taking real life tragedies and placing them within a fictionalized universe, so I feel compelled to address it here, as this book is definitely an example. Does it make me uncomfortable that King is using the JFK assassination to construct this book and earn royalties?
In the end, I’m fine with it in this specific case, and my reasons may be somewhat of a cop-out or a rationalization that allows me to enjoy a book, but here is how I look at it. Stephen King has stated that he actually had the idea for this story quite some time ago, but chose not to write it. Because he wasn’t ready for it and he wasn’t sure if the country was ready for it yet. I also don’t see him as necessarily monetizing on a national tragedy as, and let’s be honest here, he likely hasn’t been hurting for money since about the late seventies. So in this case, I feel like King is genuinely trying to tell a story, and isn’t being disrespectful to the memory of the event, or of people’s feelings surrounding it.
11/22/63 is a masterful work of literature. I thought that it was a triumphant return to the massive, yet brilliantly layered narratives of the earlier parts of his career. In terms of the craft of this story, I would place this alongside the likes of The Stand and IT. Some of the best fiction, in my opinion, is the story that puts you into the hypothetical moral quandary, and forces you to decide what you would do, and what circumstances and incentives would sway you one way or the other. Are there events in history, so significant that it would be worth it to accept whatever consequences and tragedies you may cause, in the effort to prevent one huge disaster? Jake Epping made his decision. Would you do the same?