The first question anybody asks upon finding out that I finished Stephen King’s newest novel is some version of inquiry implying that what they really want to know is whether I would recommend they read it themselves.
Unlike with Unbroken, I could not give it a sweeping recommendation. Nor could I give a sweeping, neon-flashing-lights warning not to read it, as I did with the Twilight series. The best I can do is the same type of qualified recommendation I gave for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (book 2 of which I’m currently reading), although I’m willing to be a little more liberal with 11/22/63. (By the way, I’ve had a few questions about the pronunciation of the title, stemming mostly from what I assume to be people’s ignorance [mine included, at first] of what the title actually references. As far as I’m concerned, you can pronounce it Eleven Twenty-Two Sixty-Three or November 22, 1963 or whatever makes you feel comfortable. It is a reference to a historical date, however, and I prefer the former pronunciation.)
If you’re new to Stephen King, 11/22/63 is possibly both the best and worst book for you to cut your teeth on; best because, as far as I’m concerned, this is his magnum opus and by a large margin his easiest read, even trumping some of his shorter ones, such as Cujo and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon; worst because, when it comes to getting a good feel for King’s narrative style, this book isn’t going to do it for you. If you’ve never read Stephen King before because of a preconceived notion you have about his typically well-known genre, cast aside your assumptions and pick up 11/22/63. If you love it, do not assume, however, that his other books will be so enjoyable (they might be; but in a very different way).
If you are a Stephen King fanatic, you’ve probably already read the book and therefore don’t need a recommendation, but just in case you’re looking for one, my advice is to be careful. I hesitate to say King loyalists will love this book, only because there is very little in it that makes it similar to all he’s done before. Of course, I’m not an expert and certainly haven’t read the King Canon in its entirety, but I’ve read my share and can speak with a fair amount of confident authority on the matter. I’m not saying loyal King readers won’t love it; I’m just saying it probably won’t be for the same reasons they love all his other stuff, unless a principal reason is his demonstration of diverse talent and skill, which this book certainly reveals.
In an attempt to sum up without actually spoiling the plot (sometimes I care about this and sometimes not; this time I apparently do), those who haven’t already figured it out should know that 11/22/63 is the date in history of JFK’s assassination. The premise of King’s novel, therefore, is a basic (ha! or, rather, anything but basic) time-travel scenario in which protagonist Jake Epping uses a portal to travel to a specific day in 1958. He lives from 1958 to 1963 as George Amberson, a (literally) prescient but basically ordinary-seeming high school English teacher. His aim in spending five years in the past (which, in true Narnia style, always amounts to a mere two minutes of passed time in present-day 2011) is to research and prevent the president’s assassination – a mission that Jake/George isn’t even all that passionate about. He has agreed to attempt to finish the job a friend of his started and died trying to accomplish.
What follows is a delightfully page-turning account of his progress in this endeavor, which is chock full of misadventures spanning a wide range of reader interest, such as politics and plenty of historical context for the poli-sci geeks and history buffs; baseball, horse racing, and boxing recaps for the sports lovers; mafia-related action and violence for the thrill seekers; and a good-ol’-fashioned love story for the hopeless romantics.
For those who are looking for a little bit of consistency, 11/22/63 includes all the Kingian elements that make his writing so unique. The book contains a strongly masculine (and sometimes cynical) narrator; a feel of the mystical, that otherworldly yet absurdly realist quality that is King’s trademark specialty; a dry and brilliant wit; references to his other works (most notably It, in this case); and – book-ending the main character’s stint(s) in Dallas – a Maine geographic setting that includes Derry and the Barrens, those memorable landmarks that show up so frequently in King’s work.
On the other hand, despite all these familiar elements, King has also proven that he isn’t too old to try something new, adding experimental pieces that give the book that special punch – like the obviously well-researched historical backdrop, a romance that takes center stage (not something I’ve ever experienced in a King novel or short story), and a plot that never. slows. down (thereby transforming a monstrous tome into an unbelievably quick read).
The end is predictable in some ways yet somehow still fully satisfying. The book as a whole is a testament both to the largeness and the smallness of humanity. On one hand, it makes the point that one person can have a singular and life-changing effect on history and the world just by performing one small act. On the other hand, there is what I would consider to be an even more significant message that it’s ridiculously arrogant and small minded for one person to presume his opinions and puny existence could leave any lasting impression on the world whatsoever. The thread that reconciles this dichotomy is that you never know which case it will be or when. One person in history will change the world forever while another who stands right next to him will be blurred out of the world’s collective memory forever.
The believability of King’s time-travel scenario is downright eerie and is probably the skill that impressed me most in this novel. Of course, as with any novel that pushes boundaries of reality or borders on magical realism, there are inconsistencies and holes in the plot, some of which finally get explained in the end and some of which do not. But then, I’m not positive that any author has ever been able to cover all the holes and gaps in a given plot. If I had been SK’s editor, there are a few more details I would have pushed him to hammer out, but as they say, writing can be finished but never complete… In any case, King has crafted a commendably better and more compelling read than Audrey Niffenegger did with Time Traveler’s Wife (which was ragingly popular a couple years ago), so for that, he is to be, at the very least, applauded.
So are you convinced to pick it up? If so, let me leave you with this caution: I began this book on a night I intended to turn in early. I crawled into bed, bringing the book with me, and said out loud (ask my dog if you don’t believe me), “I’ll only read for five minutes unless the first page can somehow manage to hook me completely.” Famous last words because that’s exactly what the first page did, and I groaned when I reluctantly turned out the light an hour and a half later. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.