Highly prolific author Stephen King has long been known as a master of the horror genre, but lately he’s been branching out a bit beyond his typical foundations. With 11/22/63, he takes a swing at science fiction (sort of) and alternate history, with a tale about time-travel, and the attempt to prevent John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas. So how does this story hold up against King’s other works? Can his writing satisfy devoted science fiction fans, as well as the casual reader?
Synopsis for 11/22/63:
Jake Epping is a thirty-five-year-old high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching adults in the GED program. He receives an essay from one of the students—a gruesome, harrowing first person story about the night 50 years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a hammer. Harry escaped with a smashed leg, as evidenced by his crooked walk.
Not much later, Jake’s friend Al, who runs the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to 1958. He enlists Jake on an insane—and insanely possible—mission to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination. So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson and his new world of Elvis and JFK, of big American cars and sock hops, of a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and a beautiful high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill, who becomes the love of Jake’s life—a life that transgresses all the normal rules of time.
There’s no doubting Stephen King’s skill with the written word. He’s written so many novels that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with them all. He truly is a master author, and it shows in 11/22/63. Immediately gripping and intriguing, the story pulls the reader in and almost never lets go. King transports his readers back to 1958, to an America that was much more trusting–whether people were worthy of that trust or not. He brings the late 50’s and early 60’s back to life in a way that’s both believable and realistic. King doesn’t polish the people or settings to make them look like they were the greatest years of America; instead, he faithfully renders the characters, the scenes, and the dialogue to make it clear that Dallas in 1960 was just as grimy, cluttered, and broken as big cities are in modern times–only the cast was different. The differences in the sexes are portrayed as they were–skewed toward men, and the court of public opinion clearly on the side of propriety. Police were much more likely to take someone at their word, and King leaves no stone unturned when describing the setting. It’s as if he personally lived across the street from Lee Harvey Oswald during those years, watching from a window, peeking into the life of a deeply disturbed man. The research that King must have done for this novel clearly shows, as the movements of Oswald, his wife, and his associates are described in incredible detail.
The characters in 11/22/63 are as equally well-developed as the settings. Jake Epping–the main character–is likable, empathetic, and most of all, genuine. Throughout the novel, he’s forced to employ methods he’d rather not, but in his mission to save JFK’s life, he must come to terms with the idea that the past doesn’t want to be changed–despite his good intentions. He falls in love with a woman from the 60’s, Sadie Dunhill, who’s had her own troubled past, and is believably broken by her experiences. By the end of the novel, readers will care as much about these characters as they do about their own family. Even Lee Harvey Oswald is portrayed so believably, it’s difficult to imagine that King didn’t know him personally. The novel is filled with characters that leap right off the page and into the reader’s mind, feeling more like real people rendered into words, rather than the creation of the author. It’s quite an accomplishment, and one that’s rarely done better than Stephen King has done here.
The dialogue is equally believable. Terms from the 60’s, and terms from the 00’s mix and weave together, and Epping is called out on his strange choice of words from time to time. Even local dialects are described perfectly as Jake makes his way around the country, meeting people from all over. Most impressive is a telephone conversation with JFK, in which the President’s Boston accent and cadence is captured perfectly; it’s likely to give readers’ a chill.
11/22/63 is at heart a time-travel story, and the entire series of events revolves around that time-travel–yet the novel doesn’t really feel like a science fiction book. Part of this is the fact that King doesn’t try to unravel the mysteries behind the ‘rabbit-hole’ (except perhaps a tiny bit near the end), instead letting the readers’ imagination run wild and speculate for themselves. The pure emotion behind Epping’s desire to save JFK is what drives the story, and the surprises he finds when he gets where he’s going–like Sadie Dunhill–are what make the journey worth taking. Jake finds himself with a lot of time to kill–years, essentially. Somehow, he not only successfully passes the time, but learns and grows from it. By the end, it’s clear that the time-travel involved in 11/22/63 has its consequences, and that it’s up to Jake to choose, but the choice becomes increasingly difficult for him to make–and for readers to agree or disagree with.
This novel by Stephen King is most certainly a departure for the author, and one that readers should invest their time in. Yes, it’s a long novel–perhaps too long, by far–but it’s a fantastic read. The second-half in particular is intense, and intensely enjoyable. Perhaps the only criticism is that the length of the book sometimes feels unnecessary. At over 800 pages, it’s a staggering amount of material to wade through, even with as well as King has written it. There are sections that feel rather drawn-out, but perhaps that’s the point; readers feel the time along with Jake Epping, and make that journey with him–in the form of pages, rather than the years Epping himself has to struggle through. Still, a casual read it is not–be prepared to devote significant time to reading 11/22/63. It’s well worth the read, however, and will change your mind about a great many things. Even those who aren’t fans of Stephen King should pick this one up–it’s very likely to surprise them.
– Reviewed by Bradley K. Brown