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Following his massively successful novel Under the Dome, King sweeps readers back in time to another momenta real life momentwhen everything went wrong: the JFK assassination. And he introduces readers to a character who has the power to change the course of history.
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 studentsa gruesome, harrowing first person story about the night 50 years ago when Harry Dunnings 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, Jakes friend Al, who runs the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to 1958. He enlists Jake on an insaneand insanely possiblemission to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination. So begins Jakes 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 Jakes lifea life that transgresses all the normal rules of time.
A tribute to a simpler era and a devastating exercise in escalating suspense, 11/22/63 is Stephen King at his epic best.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2011-09-19
- Reviewer: Staff
High school English teacher Jake Epping has his work cut out for him in King’s entertaining SF romantic thriller. Al Templeton, the proprietor of Al’s Diner in Lisbon Falls, Maine, has discovered a temporal “rabbit hole” in the diner’s storage room that leads to a point in the past—11:58 a.m. September 9, 1958, to be precise. Each time you go through the rabbit hole, according to Al, only two minutes have elapsed when you return to 2011, no matter how long your stay; furthermore, history resets itself each time you return to that morning 53 years ago. Al persuades Jake to take a brief, exploratory trip through the rabbit hole into 1958 Lisbon Falls. After Jake’s return, a suddenly older and sick-looking Al confesses that he spent several years in this bygone world, in an effort to prevent President Kennedy’s assassination, but because he contracted lung cancer, he was unable to fulfill his history-changing mission. “You can go back, and you can stop” the assassination, he tells Jake. Jake, with only an alcoholic ex-wife by way of family, is inclined to honor his dying friend’s request to save JFK, but he also has a personal reason to venture into the past. A night school student of his, school janitor Harry Dunning, recently turned in an autobiographical essay describing how on Halloween night 1958 Dunning’s father took a hammer to Dunning’s mother and other family members with, in some cases, fatal results. An attempt to head off this smaller tragedy provides a test case for Jake, to see if he can alter the past for the better. Hundreds of pages later, once over the initial hurdles, Jake is working under a pseudonym as a high school teacher in Jodie, Tex., an idyllic community north of Dallas. Knowing who’s going to win sporting events like the World Series comes in handy when he’s short of funds, though this ability to foretell the future turns out to have a downside. Indeed, the past, as Jake discovers to his peril, has an uncanny, sometimes violent way of resisting change, of putting obstacles in the way of anyone who dares fiddle with it. The author of Carrie knows well how to spice the action with horrific shivers. In Jodie, Jake meets a fellow teacher, Sadie Dunhill, who’s estranged from her husband, a religious fanatic with serious sexual hangups. Jake and Sadie fall in love, but their relationship has its difficulties, not least because Jake is reluctant to tell Sadie his real identity or reason for being in Texas. Clearly inspired by Jack Finney’s classic Time and Again, King smoothly blends their romance into the main story line, setting up the bittersweet ending that’s as apt as it is surprising. He also does a fine job evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of the late ’50s and early ’60s. The root beer even tastes better back then. By early 1963, Jake is zeroing in on a certain former U.S. Marine who defected to the Soviet Union and has recently returned to the U.S. with his Russian wife. Relying on Al’s judgment, Jake is only about 75% sure that Lee Harvey Oswald alone shot JFK, so he spends much time trying to ascertain whether Oswald is part of a conspiracy. Jake admits to not having researched the Kennedy assassination while still in 2011 Maine. If he had, he might’ve given up after concluding that it would be hopeless to try to stop, say, the Mafia, or the CIA, or Vice President Johnson from killing Kennedy. On the other hand, the plot would’ve been a lot less interesting if Jake, convinced on entering the past that Oswald was the sole gunman, felt compelled to eliminate Oswald long before that pathetic loser settled into his sniper’s nest in the Texas School Book Depository, toward which Jake winds up racing on the morning of November 22, 1963. In an afterword, King puts the probability that Oswald acted alone at “ninety-eight percent, maybe even ninety-nine.” “It is very, very difficult for a reasonable person to believe otherwise,” he adds. King cites several major books he consulted, but omits what I consider the definitive tome on the subject, Vincent Bugliosi’s Edgar-winning Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Norton, 2007). Bugliosi, who makes an overwhelming case in my view that the Warren Commission essentially got it right, covers the same ground as a book King does mention, Gerald Posner’s Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (Random, 2003), then goes on to destroy the arguments of the conspiracy theorists, with wit and ridicule as weapons. Of course, there will always be intelligent and otherwise reasonable people, like PW’s anonymous reviewer of Reclaiming History and King’s wife, novelist Tabitha King (a life-long “contrarian,” King tells us), who side with the host of cranks emotionally invested in believing Oswald was the patsy he claimed. Those folks may have a problem with this suspenseful time-travel epic, but the rest of us will happily follow well-meaning, good-hearted Jake Epping, the anti-Oswald if you will, on his quixotic quest. Peter Cannon is PW’s Mystery/Thriller reviews editor.
Time-traveling with the King
The buzz on Stephen King’s latest novel, 11/22/63, is that it’s about a man who goes back in time to save JFK. It’s true; that is the mission undertaken by King’s hero, 35-year-old high school teacher Jake Epping. But to a careful reader, it quickly becomes clear that this is actually a novel about falling in love: first with a time period, and then with an awkward, tall librarian named Sadie.
Jake learns about this portal to the past from his friend Al, the owner of the local diner-slash-time-machine. Al had hoped to thwart Lee Harvey Oswald on his own, but had to return to the present when he became ill with lung cancer. (One of the quirks of King’s time-travel is that no matter how long you stay, you only lose two minutes in the present.) So Al boots an unbelieving Jake out through the back door of the diner’s storeroom, into a warm September day in 1958. From the moment Jake steps up to a soda counter and orders a root beer, he is hooked on the past. “It was . . . full. Tasty all the way through,” Jake thinks. Like the apple in the Garden of Eden, the drink has revealed new possibilities. With his 21st-century life off the rails, Jake decides he has nothing to lose by taking up Al’s quest.
In Stephen King's latest novel, a man goes back in time to prevent the Kennedy Assassination.
Since Jake arrives in the past in 1958, there’s a lot of ground laid before the novel arrives at the titular date of the JFK assassination. Despite the somewhat leisurely pace, the reader is entertained by creepy details about the Oswald family and interludes with 1960s-era spying equipment, which run alongside Jake’s gradual embrace of the small Texas town where he takes a job at the high school. He meets Sadie; he is mothered by the school’s stern-but-soft principal; he directs the school play. As time passes, his 1960s life becomes more real to Jake than his life in the 21st century. Still, as 1963 approaches, he is unable to forget his mission.
Through his depictions of 1950s and ’60s life, it’s clear that King has a deep affection for the time period in which he grew up. Even so, he’s not blind to its problems, portraying the bad smells in the air near factories with no EPA regulations, the racial strife and the poverty. His vision of Dallas is particularly sinister; King compares it to Derry, Maine, his iconic fictional city that just isn’t right—one of several nods to his 1986 novel, It.
This new novel stands out from King’s oeuvre because a villain is not immediately apparent. There’s no Plymouth with a mind of its own (Christine), no killer virus (The Stand)—there’s not even an unbalanced parent (The Shining, Carrie) or crazed fan (Misery). But the adversary in 11/22/63 is perhaps King’s most implacable force yet: history itself. Oswald, who is a lackluster bad guy to say the least, is merely its tool, one of many. History, as Al explains to Jake early on, does not want to be changed—“I felt like a man trying to fight his way out of a nylon stocking. It would give a little, then snap back just as tight as before.”—and the past throws up terrifying obstacles to those who would try. This eerie quality further complicates the typical questions about fate vs. self-determination that time-travel stories raise.
Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme has already optioned 11/22/63 for film. Though perhaps less cinematic than some of King’s other works, this quietly moving and thought-provoking book, with its unexpectedly poignant ending, is a compelling tale.