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11/22/63

by Stephen King

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

By

11/22/63 by Stephen King
© Scribner
Scribner, 2011

November 22, 1963 is a seminal date for many of us who were in our last year of high school. Although we could not vote at the time, "our president" was a vibrant, charismatic hope for our future, a man who we thought represented the highest potential of government. It was he more than anyone who made us believe that if we asked what we could do for our country, there would be a fulfilling answer and opportunity. On the precipice of graduation, we stood ready to take up the torch and make our communities and the world better places.

Then came that early afternoon when we learned the astonishing news that our leader was gone, and that the world had changed forever. For the next few days we clung to our black and white televisions as the news unfolded: Kennedy dead; Governor Connally wounded; Oswald hunted and captured and killed on live television by Jack Ruby; Jackie in that pink, blood-stained dress; JFK lying in state on Lincoln's bier; the funeral with John-John saluting and Black Jack, the riderless horse. Later, there were the Zapruder film, the Warren Commission, Jim Garrison, the conspiracy theories, and hundreds of books. The speculation continues to this day, including conjecture as to what might have happened if Oswald had been thwarted.
Stephen King has captured the era in his stunning new novel, 11/22/63. An amalgam of truth and fiction, it brings those events back, "powerful emotions recollected in tranquility" as Coleridge might have put it. In an "Afterword," King notes that he began work on this novel in 1976, but was overwhelmed by the volume of research necessary and felt he was still too close to the events to write about it. He was 16 at the time of the assassination.

Time travel is the vehicle that King employs in order to weave his tale. Jake Epping, an English teacher, has been shown a hole in the universe by his friend Al Templeton who owns the diner that contains the portal. Each entry returns to 11:58 a.m. on September 9, 1958. Any length of time spent "back then" results in only two minutes of time lost "today." Templeton, who is dying and unable to do so asks Epping, an ardent fan of Kennedy, to go back and somehow rearrange events and prevent the assassination. We meet all the principal players as Epping skips through time. One must, however, keep in mind the cliché that when a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon, it can affect what happens in Arizona.
Dallas was a hotbed of fanatical conservatism in 1963. Posters indicated that Kennedy was wanted for crimes against the United States. There were warnings that he would be killed if he came to Dallas. The US flag was often flown upside down, normally a sign of distress (in this case, a sign of disrespect for the government), while the Confederate flag flew proudly right side up. Just a couple of years earlier, Adlai Stevenson and Lady Bird Johnson had been spit upon by crowds in Dallas.

King's mastery of the period from 1958 to 1963 is superb, although the extended layering of detail is excessive. The excision of 200 or so pages would have tightened the novel and made it more accessible. For example, the section in which Epping plots to prevent a horrendous case in which a father kills his family except for one boy (now a disabled janitor in Epping's school) could have used some judicious pruning.

Early in the novel, King notes in the voice of Epping that in both fiction and nonfiction the reader wants to know what happened and the writer answers by saying this happened and this happened. King has asked and answered in spades. Despite the quibbles due to its length, 11/22/63 is a marvelous re-invention of that time. It is well worth the serious commitment of time required to see how King's premise works out. Fans of King will enjoy the novel because it contains elements of the supernatural and impending unease or doom that seem to lurk just below the surface. We know these elements will bubble to the surface but we don't know just when. Those of a certain age will relive a defining moment in their lives while younger readers will find an extended history lesson about the mores of the late fifties and early sixties. Conspiracy theorists will find what they choose to find, as they always have. If they don't find it, they will make it up.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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