Stephen King’s latest effort, a time travelling potboiler, is a meandering epic that is, as Umapagan Ampikaipakan discovers, entirely unputdownable
by Stephen King
849pp. / Scribner
11/22/63. Three shots would ring out on a perfect Dallas afternoon. President Kennedy would die and the world would change.
Nov 22, 1963. It would be one of those defining dates. It would be one of those moments that demand the question: “Where were you when...?”
Norman Mailer would write in Oswald’s Tale, his stunning exploration into the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, that “it is virtually not assimilable to our reason that a small lonely man felled a giant in the midst of his limousines, his legions, his throng, and his security. If such a non-entity destroyed the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth, then a world of disproportion engulfs us, and we live in a universe that is absurd.”
It is a notion that would apply as much to the Kennedy assassination as it would to 9/11. It is a conceit that would spawn a hundred different conspiracy theories and subjunctive histories, that would be fertile material for suppositions both imagined and wished possible. Literature is replete with such what-if scenarios. Everyone from Kingsley Amis to Philip Roth to Michael Chabon have indulged in this sort of speculation. They have explored worlds and plotted fictions and attempted to provide an alternate view of this world of ours.
In 11/22/63, Stephen King puts his signature spin to that age-old fancy of going back in time and saving the life of President Kennedy. It is a story that is founded on a simple premise. “Save Kennedy, save his brother. Save Martin Luther King. Stop the race riots. Stop Vietnam, maybe.” Stop Lee Harvey Oswald. “Get rid of one wretched waif” and save millions of lives.
How? Well, it just so happens that there is a Diner in Lisbon Falls, Maine, that has a rabbit-hole to the past tucked away in its storeroom. Go inside, “take two or three steps forward. Little ones. Baby steps. Pretend you’re trying to find the top of a staircase with all the lights out.” And the next thing you know, you’re in 1958.
It is where Jake Epping, the 35-year-old English teacher and protagonist of our novel, finds himself when he is summoned for an urgent meeting, entirely out of the blue, by Al Templeton, the proprietor of said mystical diner. Jake goes for the meeting and finds that Al has somehow aged overnight and is wracked by lung cancer.
Only it didn’t happen overnight. Al had, in fact, been gone for years. He had discovered the time portal connecting the present to Sept 9, 1958, and what began as a cunning business plan — buying hamburger meat at 50-year-old prices — eventually manifests into something a lot more weighty: preventing the murder of a president. Unable to complete his mission due to illness, Al instead recruits young Jake, who, before long, is at the bottom of an imaginary flight of stairs and in a world where the root beer tastes fuller, richer, better.
Now this is where King requires you to suspend your disbelief because his entire thread is wholly dependent on a single contrivance. That every trip down the rabbit-hole finds you in the same place at the same time. That irrespective of how long you spend there, only two minutes have lapsed when you return to the present. And that every trip back somehow resets history to the way it was and to the way we remember it.
Armed with that knowledge and with Al’s CliffNotes of the history he is about to live, Jake settles down as a teacher in a small Texas town and lies in wait for the years to roll by. He supports himself by placing wagers on sporting events. He falls in love. He gets involved in the lives of his students. He tracks the movements of Lee Harvey Oswald.
This is not a book that seeks to provide an alternate history of what the world would have been like had Kennedy lived. In fact, King doesn’t even begin to address that point of view until the very last pages of the novel. What this is instead, is a richly layered yarn about what it would take to change the past, of what it would be like were you presented with such an opportunity. It is a character study on the kind of determination it would take for one man to face off with the forces of history.
There is a distinct difference in the way King plots this kind of tale. Unlike those authors who specialise in the genre, King spends little time trying to explain the mechanics and dynamics of time travel. He doesn’t concern himself with the nitty gritty. He thinks little of paradoxes. For him, time travel is nothing more than a trope, it is merely a MacGuffin, a convenient excuse by which to trigger adventure, by which to peer into the lives of yet another group of fractured individuals.
11/22/63 is quite the ride. It is prodigiously researched. It is rich with the kind of detail that makes these fantasies believable. There is a powerful sense of time and of place in King’s narrative, from the songs his characters sing, to the clothes that they wear, to the lingo that they speak.
In fact, I am going to come right out and say it: Stephen King is America’s greatest living writer. It may sound like pure puffery, but it is a statement rooted in both his skill as a storyteller and the reality of his achievements as a novelist. It is an assessment based on a lifetime of wonderfully crafted narratives that span a range of genres, from horror to suspense, from science fiction to fantasy.
Which isn’t to say that every one of his novels are winners. Not at all. In fact, there is no denying that King’s works are a mixed bag, his misses probably numbering as many as his hits. Even so, what makes him stand out — even surpass his peers — is his storytelling philosophy. Because King is absolutely fearless. He is unafraid to explore, to wander, to go to all those places that few dare venture, constantly pushing at the boundaries of our humanity and is unflinchingly committed to testing the limits of our imagination.
And for that he deserves every credit. For continuing to stretch and stimulate. For constantly redefining the course of literature, irrespective of genre. And in so doing, he has pushed the world of American letters further than any other author writing today.
11/22/63 is King at the top of his game. It is a meandering and meditative work that proves once and for all that there is no end to King’s skill as a storyteller, that there is no wane to his career as a raconteur.
The 10-month investigation by the Warren Commission concluded that President Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald and that he acted alone.
Polls conducted from 1966 to 2004 found as many as 80 per cent of Americans believed that there was a plot, cover-up or some sort of conspiracy behind the assassination.