Imagine you came across a portal that could take you to September 9, 1958. You could come and go through the portal at will, but each time, it would take you to September 9, 1958. What would you do? Would you stay away from it, fearing the inconceivable ramifications of changing the past – the ‘butterfly effects’ that unleash the powers of chaos? Would you just use it to take a peek at a time gone by? Would you use it to gain financial advantage? Or would you feel compelled to attempt to right a wrong and make the world a better place?
Steven King’s 11/22/63 asks those very questions. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by, we believe, Lee Harvey Oswald – an angry nobody that had never been of any significance before that point. How many events spun out of that tragic day? Would the Vietnam war have happened if Kennedy had lived to serve another term? Would his brother Robert have been assassinated? Would Martin Luther King Jr have been assassinated? Without that shocking event in 1963, would the counterculture revolutions of the 60’s have happened? The brutal assassination of a young vibrant President has burned itself into our collective consciousness as an event that shouldn’t have happened. Many fictional works have examined it – often from the perspective of how would things be different if it hadn’t happened? and occasionally from the perspective of could it be prevented? This novel predominantly focuses on the latter (with a brief look at the former).
Jake Epping is an English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine. Recent changes in his life have left him with little attachments, making him susceptible to the request that one day comes from a friend. The friend has discovered a portal to the past on his property, but he’s too sick to do the job himself.
A dominant theme in the story is that the past doesn’t want to be changed. As Jake repeatedly says, throughout the book, “the past is obdurate.” This is where the real drama comes into play and where the story starts to feel more like a Steven King story. It doesn’t matter how well Jake prepares, the past will rebel and try to stop him from changing it.
There is also the complication that there is uncertainty surrounding Oswald. Jake can’t just find Oswald in 1958 and kill him. What if there were others involved? Killing Oswald might do nothing. Or what if Oswald was really a patsy? Jake has to put Oswald under surveillance and try to put the pieces together.
The story would feel too contrived if the portal opened up to a few days before the assassination. It would also make it to easy to just keep trying until it worked. King needed to create a greater space between the two points. The complication with that is that five years is a long time and a lot happens in five years, making it difficult to keep the story focused on the primary objective. The positive side of that is that five years gives King enough time to examine other themes, like love and learning. The book is certainly the better for the space that allows it to examine those other themes, but an argument could be made that a bit more editing would have helped. There were four or five places in the book where I felt the pacing become too slow. Those places become less common the further one gets into the book, in fact the last 50 or so pages are told at a frantic pace.
King certainly did his research and creates a vivid rendering of the late 1950s – early 1960s. If I have a complaint, though, it is that Steven King puts a little too much of himself into the story. By that I mean it was occasionally distracting in that I was pulled out of the story whenever I would spot something that felt like it was about King. Portions of the story are set in Maine, where King lives half the time. Portions of the story are set in Florida, where King lives half the time. A major character experiences an incident where he receives injuries similar in description to those King experienced when he was hit by a van in 1999. Jake Epping is an teacher that writes. King was a teacher and writes. King loves music and music plays an important role in the story. There are even mentions of characters from other King books.
The story shines in its characters, though. Jake is an easy hero with which to identify. The people of Derry, Maine and Jodie, Texas all feel real, even though the personas of the two towns are complete opposites. The love story is so well told that it started to become more important to me than the hunt for Oswald.
At around 850 pages, it’s a big book, but reads quickly – like me, you might experience it as three quite late nights in a row.