Book Reviews

Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King – Will Re-Writing History Bring on a Fairy Tale?

Of all the “what ifs” in history, probably none looms larger than what if John F. Kennedy had lived.  His Presidency was a tumultuous one that came to be highly regarded due to his actions in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fact that it had been cut short by an assassin’s bullet (or more than one, if you ascribe to one or more of the conspiracy theories out there).  In 11/22/63, horror author Stephen King takes a stab at alternate history to a certain degree and does so rather well.

Jake Epping is a high school English teacher living something of a quiet life in Maine.  He’s highly regarded as a teacher, but still smarting from having his recovering-alcoholic wife take off with one of her fellow alcoholics and divorcing him.  This makes him the perfect candidate for the adventure Al Templeton has in mind. Al’s the owner of a local diner and mystifies locals as to how he can undersell the competition to the point that his burgers are rumored to be “cat burgers”.

What people don’t know is that there exists a sort of time tunnel in the back of Al’s Diner. Al discovered it purely by accident, stumbling into it and finding himself in 1958.  (Meat was a lot cheaper back then, you know.)  As he went through it and tested a few things, he came up with the idea of staying back in time long enough to stop the Kennedy assassination.  Unfortunately, before he could do that, Al was struck down by lung cancer with a death sentence of no more than six months looming before him.  This is why he returns to the small town in Maine to find someone else to finish what he could not. That person is Jake.

Told in the first-person, 11/22/63 sets up both what kind of person Jake is as well as his adventures in time travel. No matter how long one spends in the past when they return it’s only two minutes later than when they left.  This allows Jake to test being able to change history as well.  When he changes the life of a student he had in his GED class, although not with the outcome he wanted, he knows he can have an effect on history and sets out to do it.

Armed with money from back then that Al has stockpiled, Jake travels back to 1958 and becomes George Amberson.  He changes the life of a little girl that Al tested in his foray into the past, then changes his student’s life in a slightly different manner, hoping for a better outcome. The real change, though, will be in Dallas where he feels if he stops that, he can stop all of the death that will happen in Vietnam.

11/22/63 builds quite nicely as George lives life in the past and moves closer and closer to Dallas in 1963.  Aware of the conspiracy theories out there, he needs to study the situation long enough to ascertain if Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman.  At the same time, he’s drawn into having a personal life in the past that leaves him quite satisfied. But he’s an anomaly there, and the past is fighting the changes he wants to make…

11/22/63 has more the feel of a thriller than science fiction or horror.  I used to have a tendency to read the endings of books, so I could savor the rest of it and not feel like I was rushing through it to find out what happened. Reading it on my Kindle made it more difficult for me to skip ahead, and for the first time in a long time, I read a book the way it was intended.  It was still a heavy-duty read and the hard-cover version comes in at over 800 pages.  That said, I could hardly wait to get through it. Not only was there the anxiousness to see what would happen to Jake and if he would be able to accomplish what he set out to do, but also seeing what the effect would be back in the present day if he did.

King paced the book quite well, building to events and then giving the reader a bit of a rest after significant events occur.  It can be hard dealing with real characters, but I thought King was more than fair in his characterizations of Lee Harvey Oswald, his wife Marina, and others he interacted with.  For fans of King, you’ll find a few “Easter Eggs” with characters he’s created in other stories.  I loved the tie-in to It and the way Jake characterizes Derry where he spends a bit of time.

If there’s one fault to be found in 11/22/63 I think it will be the ending. Many people will want to hear the fairy tale. I had an idea that King wasn’t going to go for that and didn’t see how he could pull it off. I found the ending to be quite well-executed but have heard from others they were disappointed.  To each his own.

Being a fan of alternate history, 11/22/63 thrilled me, although I don’t think you have to be a fan of that genre to enjoy it.  This is a novel with a lot of historical detail to it, but it unfolds in a very accessible format.  I think people who enjoy thrillers would enjoy it. If you’re looking for classic King, you won’t find it here. That doesn’t stop this from being one of his that should be on a must-read list.

10 replies »

  1. 11/22/63 is, hands down, my favorite Stephen King novel, followed closely by IT and The Stand. It’s the only sprawling novel that I read from cover to cover while Mom was still alive (it was published in 2011, qualifying it as being from the Land of Ago.

    I not only have the hardcover, but the audiobook and the 2016 Hulu miniseries co-produced by King and J.J. Abrams. (I really need to finish the audiobook, which is one of the few I own; I bought it during my brief stint as a quasi-homeowner in Miami, but only got as far as CD #4.)

  2. Funny I have not heard of this one. Sounds interesting. I have a friend who was 13 years old at the time and he arrived seconds after the assassination. His girlfriend at the time was the daughter of the Dallas police chief who kept the papers on Lee Harvey Oswald at home, which he wasn’t supposed to. Anyway, he read them. He also played in Jack Ruby’s night club and knew Jack Ruby and he knew Lee Harvey Oswald’s girlfriend. Therefore, he knew a lot about this event and Jack Ruby did what he did and he knows stuff that has never been written about. However, his conclusion is, there was no conspiracy. The official story seems to be correct. Anyway, I may get this book. I also think alternative history is fun.