"11/22/63", Stephen King's latest, might just be his greatest. Seriously. At least as far as "mainstream" fiction or "literature" goes. Yes, it is built around a well-used SF trope, time travel, but really, the portal to the past that Jake Epping is shown in the back of an aluminum diner is only the launch mechanism for this fantastic journey. There are no monsters here, at least none that aren't human, and little or no horror in the supernatural sense that King's constant readers have come to know, love and expect. Even SK's other "straight" fiction, "Misery", "Dolores Claiborne" and "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" come to mind, had elements of the supernatural and/or flat-out horror. Not this time.
But that doesn't mean that 11/22/63 is boring. Quite the contrary. Although it might seem that it would be tough to build suspense around a conclusion that seems to be inevitable, this turns out not to be the case. Big time. I just finished playing hooky from work for a day when I read the last 400 pages non-stop (except for a couple of bathroom breaks), because I just couldn't stop. I just kept pressing the advance button on my Kindle.
The adjective that first comes to mind in describing 11/22/63 among SK's oeuvre is, oddly enough, "mature". I have read every novel and anthology that King has published, plus a large number of single short stories, starting with "Carrie" in a borrowed paperback back in the late 1970s. I have never before thought of describing his work in any of them, many good, some great and a few clunkers (some of which I have reviewed as such), as mature. But that is the first, best word that comes to mind in describing 11/22/63. There were others too; exciting, romantic, bittersweet and, as with all SK's stuff, well-written.
Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination were obviously very well-researched, clear from the details in the text even before one gets to the afterword that describes some of the sources and methods used. The lead-up to the day of the assassination is described in great detail, along with Oswald's relationship to his family and associates, all matters of historical record (at least according to the sources cited by SK, with which most of the readers who did not like the novel disagreed emphatically). But I should point out that the facts concerning the Kennedy assassination are actually not the main focus of the novel.
The world of 1958-1963 is described in wonderful detail, through the eyes of Jake as he gradually sheds his early 21st century armored shell and falls in love with a small Texas town and Sadie, its new young librarian. Their love story is the centerpiece of the novel and is told with great depth, sensitivity and believability. I'm old enough to have experienced lots of the stuff that Jake encounters in 1958 (albeit as a child) and it jives with and jogs my recollections and induces a feeling of longing for older, simpler times. For King''s "Constant Readers", there are easter egg cameos from "It" and "The Langoliers" that I recognized. Knowing SK, there may well be others.
The ending is not predictable (if you say you saw it all coming you are either lying or should be a best-selling novelist) and is surprisingly satisfying. To those who say King doesn't know how to end his novels, I say, read this one.
Very Highly Recommended for all (even those who think they know but don't "like" Stephen King).
on November 10, 2011
Stephen King started publishing books around roughly the same time I started reading them. It was the mid 70s, and I was a precocious young thing. I was fearless, and man I loved what he was writing! I haven't read nearly all of his novels in the decades since, but enough to have a pretty good familiarity with the universe that his works share. Now entering my more fearful middle age, I can tell you there is, oddly, something deeply comforting about submerging myself again in his rich, folksy world where heroes ARE heroic, all stories come full circle, and pretty much all nagging questions are eventually put to rest.
The hero of 11/22/63 is Jake Epping, and early on in this novel he is presented with something inconceivable, a sort of wormhole in time. It leads from 2011 Maine to September 9, 1958. You can visit the past for as long as you like--years even--but when you return to the present it's always exactly two minutes later. Every subsequent visit is a "reset." You can change the past (and consequently the present), but as Jake learns, "the past is obdurate." It resists.
There's more to the set-up, of course, but that's all you really need to know. Because with this portal to the past, Jake is set on a mission that would probably be the goal of most every person of a certain age--to stop the Kennedy assassination. I don't think it resonates quite so strongly with those of us who weren't around to remember Camelot, but, sure, 11/22/63 was one of the most pivotal days in this nation's history. It's a day that surely scarred the psyche of every American who remembers it.
For long-time readers like myself, there are some wonderful Easter eggs to be found in 11/22/63, tying back to past novels, and probably to future ones as well. It's amazing how King does that. Characters I haven't seen for decades make cameo appearances and gosh it's great to see them. If Mr. King has one skill above all, it's the ability to breathe life into his characters. No wonder they live on long after their stories end. And it's not just the characters that feel like old friends, it's merely inhabiting the King-verse with its familiar town names, attitudes, and themes. Like I said, comforting.
So, if it's not obvious already, I loved this novel from start to finish! Heck, I read 849 pages in less than 48 hours. But Mr. King might have written this one just for me. I have a thing for time travel stories. In fact, 11/22/63 has several similarities with an old favorite I recently re-read: Replay, by Ken Grimwood. The ideas of this novel are pretty compelling, and it's not surprising that others have explored them. Reading the two so close together made for an interesting counterpoint, and did disservice to neither.
Thirty-seven years and several dozen novels after his first, Stephen King is still finding new stories to tell in inventive ways. Yes, those familiar echoes are there, but somehow Mr. King is keeping his prolific output fresh. 11/22/63 is a blast from the past. I'm glad I got to travel there with this dear old friend.
I first read about this book a few months ago. While I am a fan of Stephen King, I'm not a huge fan. I don't typically buy his books the day they are released, but when I read the premise for this one I just thought that it was a really neat idea and I couldn't wait for it to be released so that I could read it. Then I got a little nervous about it. From the time I read the teaser I thought that there were so many interesting directions that someone could take this story, but what if it tanks? That's always the pitfall of a really neat idea... what if it fails to really bloom like you think it could? But this is Stephen King. For my review, I'd like to establish that I was born almost 7 years after JFK died. I am not a JFK scholar and I did not read this book trying to hyper-analyze the historical accuracy of the book. I took it as a fictional exploration of a historical event produced not to answer any historical questions but just to entertain and provoke thought. I feel it was very successful on both points. My fears that Stephen King was going to take a great idea and go nowhere with it were definitely unfounded. He also works in all his usual Stephen King "givens"... the story starts in Maine. We even get to "visit" a couple of characters from other Stephen King books and the town of Derry, though the majority of the book is set in Texas of course. On the whole I usually review books based on how well spent I feel my time was in reading it and I am in no way disappointed in this one. If you buy the book I hope you enjoy it as much as I did and thank you for taking the time to read my review.
on December 19, 2011
The cold war, the Cuban Missile Crisis, gasoline at 30 cents a gallon: these were realities of life if you were born in the early 1950s. I was 13 when JFK was shot. I remember like yesterday the teacher coming to my science class room and talking to our teacher at the door. Then our teacher announced to us that "President Kennedy has died. He was shot today in Dallas, Texas." Our teacher was Canadian and he went right on with the lesson. My most vivid memory of the days that followed is Kennedy's son John-John raising his hand in salute as the coffin passes him. My mom and sister both burst into tears. (Yes, for you younger folks, that was the John Kennedy that was killed in a plane crash in 1999.)
King brought all these memories to life for me in 11/22/63, the story of a man from 2011 that goes back to 1958 to try to stop the Kennedy assasination in 1963. I am a King fan and this will not take the place of my number one novel, The Stand, but it comes close. Sometimes I couldn't put it down and sometimes I couldn't go on reading because of all the memories.
Everything is in this story: romance, suspense, history, science fiction, not to mention what makes King excel over other popular writers of the day. That, in my opinion, is his ability to weave themes into a story that re-occur and tie the story together emotionally. One example from this book, "the past harmonizes." There is nothing of the supernatural here yet the function of the supernatural is replaced by the weird and intriguing idea that the past does not want to change.
Another example is the dancing theme. Dancing occurs at several points in the story and forms the thread for Sadie's words in the end, "How we danced." Even as I write this, those words cause my chest to grip.
Some say that King's biggest strength is his story telling. I disagree. King is a great story teller. Yet, his biggest strength is his ability to make us care about the characters. Even Marina Oswald, whose name is all but lost in history, comes alive to us as she struggles with being an outsider trapped in a marriage to an abusive lunatic.
Ultimately this story is a romance. Didn't someone once say that "it is always about the girl?" Jake and Sadie had me smiling and tearing up and thinking about the romances in my life, good and not so good (is romance ever really bad?). I am not a fast reader or a "long session reader". An hour at a time is my usual. But the last 200 pages or so kept me reading for most of one evening and I then stopped with 20 pages to go because I wasn't ready to say goodbye to Jake and Sadie. I woke up at 4:00 AM the next morning and read the last 20 pages as well as the end material. Then my eyes water up. Sorry, I am a 61 year old guy and, unlike Jake, I do cry.
So, thanks again, Stephen for your dedication to your readers, your hard research and your imagination. I was swept away by this story.
on December 20, 2011
I started this book with high expectations. While I have never been an avid Stephen King fan, I nevertheless enjoyed his last couple of books and had no doubt that this one would be at least as entertaining. Luckily, I was right...Unluckily, I was right only about half of the book.
Jake Epping is just your typical, average, divorced high school teacher until he came into an amazing secret: There is a warmhole in the pantry of his friend Al's diner that is a bridge between the past and the present - the past being the fall of 1958. And before Jake knows it, he has been sent back in time by Al to stave off the JFK assassination. The catch? Since the warmhole - or the rabbit-hole and Jake and Al like to call it - can only send time-travelers back to September 9, 1958, Jake will have to stay in the past for four years to accomplish the feat that will alter history as we know it forever. Thus begins the epic adventure that will span more than 4 years and over 800 pages before it reaches it's heartbreaking but inevitable conclusion.
To me, the book is at its strongest when it focuses on the characters. Jake, after making his way across half of the United States and after altering a couple of life-changing events for people he knew back in 2011, eventually settles down in Jodie, Texas. It is here that he meets the love of his life Sadie, and here that he becomes part of a close knit community and forms the crucial friendships that will make him consider staying in the 50-60's for good. During this part of the book, readers can clearly see Jake emerging as a three-dimensional character - a person who cares about his friends and the commnuities he live in and yet is always haunted by what lies ahead on 11/22/1963. And despite the character-centric plot during this part of the book, Mr. King still managed to build a palpable sense of doom and suspense as he creates a juxtaposition between good and evil, joy and sorrow. My fingers couldn't turn the pages fast enough.
Unfortunately, after about the midway point, the book stalled. Instead of focusing on the good citiznes of Jodie, whom we actually care about, Mr. King spent pages after pages detailing the daily activites of the Oswalds. In order to make sure that Lee Harvey and Lee Harvey only was involved in the JFK assassination, Jake rents an apartment across the street from the Oswald residence so he can conduct surveillance on the Oswalds. From that point on, each fight between Lee Harvey and his wife Marina was described in excruciating detail...each visit from Lee's mom...each visit from Marina's Russian friends..each inane conversation...it just goes on and on. I have noticed even while reading Mr. King's last book ("Under the Dome") that Mr. King tends to be a bit self-indulgent when it comes to his writing, and that is in ample evidence here. It is obvious that the book is well-researched and that Mr. King has a lot to say when it comes to the Cold War atmosphere of the 60's. But just because the research has been done does not mean that everything should be dumped in the book, especially when the information is delivered in the form of characters so unpalatable to the readers that the readers can't care less about what happens to them. In this case, tighter edits would definitely done this section of the book a world of good and the book could have been trimmed down by at least 200 pages without losing anything.
In the end, the book ended in the exactly same manner I predicted it would - with Jake racing against the clock to alter history and facing the ramifications of his actions. There was no surprise to me on how the book would end, but that is not the point. The point is that Mr. King had something to say about time travel, about the kind of fear peopled lived with in the 60s, about owning up to your actions and facing the consequences..and he did it in a way that was vastly entertaining, the boring middle section notwithstanding.
Hey, dedicated Stephen King fans! You're in for an epic treat--an odyssey, a Fool's journey, an adventure with romance. A genre-bending historical novel with moral implications, this story combines echoes of Homer, H.G. Wells, Don Quixote, Quantum Leap (the old TV show), Jack Finney's Time and Again, and even a spoonful of meta-King himself, the czar of popular fiction.
The voice is familiar--the reluctant, lonely, courageous, romantic, destiny-bound hero/scarred social warrior. The story is King-esque- towering, prophetic, and flamboyant. This is mainstream entertainment; King is King of what King does--the unruly escapist story with a blazing heart. King is loyal to what he calls his "Constant Reader."
This is not horror, in case you are strictly old school fans. However, there is a touch of the supernatural via time-travel. If you are new to King, and are reading this for more insight into the fateful day of 11/22/63, or a "what would the world be like if...?," this is not King's principle design. It hovers, yes, and is material only to the primary theme.
Through a time portal in the storeroom of a greasy spoon diner, is a way back to 1958. Do we have the moral right to alter history, if we could? This is Jake Epping's noble journey--to answer that question--and, even more so, to ask it. King's demonstrates how the past and the present have a harmony that echoes, sings, dances, and shadows. He has refined his work from the genre horror, and the horrors that he now portray are undeniably real.
King provides details that make the time-travel plausible--suspending disbelief is playfully easy. Jake confronts the prophecy that "the past is obdurate," and "life can turn on a dime." Inevitably, his mission and his new life rub together, generating poignant conflicts and urgent demands.
King's strengths include his sense of place and time. He renders 1958 so specifically that you will be transported. Ten-cent root beers with foam; fin-tailed Chevrolets; cigarette smoke wafting inside and out; Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis from the jukebox; dancing cheek-to-cheek; mink and Moxie; rotary dial phones and party lines, and so much more to texturize the "Land of Ago." King makes it credible for memories to branch arterially from past to present, for different time periods to cast hazy shadows on each other.
"It's all of a piece...It's an echo so close to perfect you can't tell which one is the living voice and which is the ghost-voice returning."
Despite the voluminous research done by King into the Oswald controversy, his historical conclusions are woven into the book rather cursorily, but emphatically. Does this matter? It might. I was distracted at intervals. We don't have to necessarily agree with a character's actions, but if an historical context is displayed as fact, but the facts don't add up for the reader, then the framework strains to hold together. Then again, it might not matter at all.
The narrative is earnestly embellished, characters and motives occasionally simplified, and plot devices wistfully executed. He isn't one for much technical subtlety, and he justifies (too many) coincidences by cleverly making coincidence part of the theme. But this is King's signature style, and it works. I cared as passionately as Jake. Sadie, however, is the unforgettable character in this book. Jake/George may be the hero, but Sadie is the spirited touchstone. Comely, fetchingly clumsy, and wounded, she dances off the pages.
No popular author opens and closes a story like Stephen King. Enchanting and sublime, he builds deft bridges and ladders that are not only elaborate and infinite, but also inspired and relevant. He captures in a few chapters what an evocative song can capture in a few minutes. Whatever his flaws, his rewards are plentiful. Classy, cosmic, mystical, and kaleidoscopic--the story was radiant and clear, through a glass, darkly.
Addendum: Simon and Schuster sent me a copy in October for review. The views are entirely my own.
on November 17, 2011
Many of you will cringe at the following sentence.
This is my first Stephen King book. Yes, I know. Stop looking at me like that and listen for a second. This book is amazing. The opening pages really did a lot to get me invested in the main character. When I say that, really I mean to point out that the writer did so much, with so little. It's a simple introduction to a complex character. Someone you will WANT to follow and see where the path leads. There is where many modern books fail, and fail hard in my opinion. Those first two pages are crucial in getting me hooked, and King managed to do that with just a few sentences.
JFK was, and still is an American hero to me. And while I do differ with Stephen's opinion on the lone shooter theory, that does not take away from what is done here. It is riveting work, and he obviously did a lot of research because some of the ways history ties into the main story is incredibly clever. Mixing my favorite fringe science genre (time travel) and one of my favorite characters in history so well is an accomplishment. I have had many day dreams myself about the what if's. What if we could go back? Who would we save, and how would we do it? It's all here, and what's here is fantastic.
Stop reading this, and START reading this book. You won't regret it.
on November 19, 2011
As a 68 year old from Ft Worth and having seen JFK the morning of 11-23-1963 I feel more than qualified to say: Bravo Mr. King.
Have driven all the roads you mention and studied the people you make come alive in Texas during the telling of your wonderful story from Round Rock to Killeen to Dallas and of course Cowtown. I am nearly speechless!
on July 7, 2013
When you know that this book is by Stephen King, and is about someone who goes back in time to save JFK from being assassinated, what are you expecting to see in the story?
Probably some drama, excitement, a bit of history, a fair bit of science fiction and something a bit on the "weird" side even.
What you don't expect is for a bulk of the story to be about the romance between the main character and a woman who lives in the 60s.
It was quite disappointing to me, to see the story start out fairly strong and be fairly compelling and interesting; if not a bit, well, down to earth and straight forward. Then have it shift into being about the main character "going native" and developing a romantic relationship; complete with frequent mentions of their apparently quite lively sex lives.
After the halfway point of the book, I found it increasingly difficult to keep going and keep caring about the story or the characters. It became quite obvious that saving JFK was more of a sideline to the story, more of a "Oh my, this thing I really have to do is causing stress in my relationship!" kind of thing. There are still some fairly interesting moments in the story, but they become fewer and further between. I keep hoping the story will pick up as it nears the end, but it is looking less and less likely.
If you are a fan of stories that are vaguely science fiction and more leaning to period romance, then you will probably like this story. If you are expecting a story that is more, well, Stephen King, and actually have a fair amount to do with JFK, then this isn't your book.
on December 25, 2011
This book received an incredible amount of praise from critics and readers. The plot is indeed intriguing and promising. Man goes back to before JFK was killed an attempts to prevent the assassination. The beginning of this book and most of the end are excellent. Full of action, suspense, and surprises. The problem is the extremely long middle of the novel - the bridge between the setup and the conclusion. There is simply not enough of interest going on. There are some cute scenes and ideas (creating buzz words long before their time) but this part simply drags. This might have been a great short story of even a novella. So because of the problems with the middle section, even thought I basically enjoyed the book, I will not be recommending it to my friends.