Book Review: Stephen King's 11/22/63; The Past Is Obdurate
It's been a long time since I've read anything by the prolific "Master of Horror," Stephen King, spanning at least a decade since I last read his novel, Black House. While younger, I enjoyed being creeped out a bit by some of his edgier novels, but the older I grew, the more I appreciated anything he wrote that was less horror and more just good drama. His latest book, 11/22/63 tempted me because it's premise of a time travelling hero bent on changing the course of history by saving JFK's life, seemed to fit this model, so I downloaded an electronic version and dove in.
In , Jake Epping is a 35 year old high school english teacher who takes on night courses for adults to add a little extra income. One of Jake's students, Harry Dunning, overwhelms Jake with an essay tells the story of how his father 50 years earlier had taken the lives of his siblings and mother, and left him hobbled in the process. Around this same time, Jake's friend Al reveals that he's discovered a portal to the past in the pantry of his greasy spoon diner. 11/22/63
Al convinces Jake to not only step through the portal to 1958 see for himself that it exists, but to also embark on a journey to change the course of history by keeping John F. Kennedy from being assassinated on that fateful day. Jake agrees, not only for Al, and for JFK, but to help Harry Dunning and an entire nation, if he can somehow pull off the impossible task in a past that does not want to be changed. Along the way Jake interacts with many yet to be historical figures, and meets the love of his life, from his past.
11/22/63 is another of King's monster sized novels, but is a fast paced, heart pounding read. While he is often noted for his horror writing, King's true gift is in building suspense, which doesn't always have to involved monsters, ghosts and other creatures of the dark. However, the villains in King's books often are more intense and more frightening than those of the netherworlds because they are real life monsters....the ones we actually meet and interact with in the known world.
King's late 50's and early 60's world is described in vivid detail, and the writing transports you back to the era understanding the tastes of old fashioned rootbeer and roadside diner burgers, the sounds of Buddy Holly on the radio, and the smell of cigarettes everywhere, in a time long before laws banned them from most public places. For my money there is no author that crafts the details like King does, and he doesn't disappoint this time around. While the book covers two time periods, the present and the past, the era of sock hops and big block engines remains the focus.
It's obvious that King painstakingly researched the assassination of JFK, and the key players of the tragic event. In fact, in the afterward, he mentions that he tried to originally write the novel in 1972, but it didn't really find it's heartbeat until current day. He also discusses and thanks the many that were involved in making the book happen, and the depths of his research are evident throughout the story.
Although not entirely a spoiler, the 'story within a story' that competes against the mission of saving the president and changing the course of history, is that Jake falls in love in the past, and has to work out the reality of his two worlds and how they effect this relationship. Ultimately, the story and question of 11/22/63 is just that -- how does changing any event in the past, effect the future? And once you realize the outcome of decisions, both good and bad, how do you make the toughest calls of your life? King will tie your stomach up in knots as you feel the weight of making those hard decisions right along with Jake.
Stephen King's novel 11/22/63 rivals my favorite of his epic works, and is the best novel I've read in quite some time. For the King newbie, be warned that there is plenty of swearing in the everyday exchanges of the characters, and although not a horror book itself, there are still elements of violence described in tremendous detail, as King is accustomed to doing. For those of you familiar with his works, you won't notice anything out of the ordinary.