I admit it. I got hooked. I let Stephen King work his magic on me. I sat up until one o’clock in the morning to finish King’s massive new tale 11/22/63. It was worth every minute.
Stephen King is a master story teller. He may be the greatest living American writer. Since the publication of Carrie in the 1970s, King has told many grisly and spooky tales which have kept many readers awake at night.
11/22/63 is the story of a Maine schoolteacher named Jake Epping. (Other than Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, no fictional world is as fully realized as Stephen King’s Maine. Like Faulkner, King weaves references to his earlier novels into this story). Jake’s alcoholic wife has recently divorced him, and Jake is all alone in the world. Jake teaches the adult G.E.D. classes. A janitor named Hank writes an essay telling about how his alcoholic father murdered Hank’s mother and siblings one Halloween night and how it changed his life for the worse. Jake has a friend named Al who runs a diner. Al has discovered that his pantry is really a portal to the past. Like the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe if you keep walking toward the wall in Al’s pantry you eventually end in up in another world. Except in this case, it's always the same day in 1958. Al has been using the pantry doorway to go buy meat at 1958 prices and bring it back and sell it in 2011. Finally, Al gets the idea that he should use his doorway to the past for a greater purpose. What if he could go back in time and stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating President Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963?
Al has gone back and tried to stop the assassination, but has contracted lung cancer. Even though he has spent years in the past, when he returns to the future it is only two minutes after he left. Al recruits his friend Jake to take up his mission to save John F. Kennedy.
Part of Jake's mission is to make sure that Oswald acted alone and that there was no conspiracy. King is convinced that Oswald acted alone. (King realizes that a conspiracy is actually comforting. A conspiracy means that a group of smart people planned the death of the President. The thought that one nut with a cheap rifle can change history is what's scary).
King spends the first several hundred pages of this 842 page novel setting his hook on the reader. You come to care about Jake and care about the subplots which King has masterfully woven into the story. 11/22/63 may also contain one of the best love stories of the last few years. While waiting to confront Oswald, Jake falls in love with a woman from the past. In fact, he may be willing to sacrifice the future for her . . .
As we all know from watching Star Trek, monkeying about with the past is a tricky business. Jake Epping finds out exactly how tricky. With his left-leaning politics, King realizes that keeping Kennedy alive is a liberal dream. King is also aware of the old adage, “be careful what you want, you might get it.”
King spends a good bit of time feeling nostalgic for the late fifties and early sixties. Everybody smoked without guilt. The milkman delivered real milk and real cream. Gas was cheap and plentiful and big gas guzzling cars were cool. The food tasted better and people left their back doors unlocked. There is also a dark side to what King calls “The Land of Ago.” There is racism and sexism and you can’t get instant answers from the internet. All in all, King likes the Land of Ago a lot better than “The Land of Ahead.”
The Bad Catholic advice, gentle reader, is go get hooked. 11/22/63 is a haunting book that will give you much to ponder long after the telling of the tale is done. Let Fisherman King dangle the bait in front of you, and swallow it hook, line and sinker. Then sit back and let him reel you in. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you have been caught by a master.