11.22.63 by Stephen King
Published by Hodder and Stoughton, November 2011.
ISBN: 978 1 444 72729 6
Review by Mark Yon
This is perhaps a book that needs no review; such is the stature of Stephen King. As one of the most successful American authors of the 20th and 21st century (some would say the most), whatever I say, as an upstart Brit, isn’t going to make any impact on the juggernaut of publicity that surrounds any Stephen King publication. This is, by my approximate reckoning, his 51st book (not including the Bachman books.) Any publication of his defies review. However, many will ask, ‘Is it worth reading?’
In a slight change to most of his other fiction, this time around, 11.22.63 attempts the difficult task of merging real life events as an important element of King’s fictional world. It involves a topic of global significance but one, like the Vietnam War, that still cuts the American psyche most keenly. The assassination of a President is always shocking, but this one especially so when it happened so clearly in the full glare of the media. It also happened in the President’s own country, not whilst visiting somewhere else, at a time filled with optimism.
Stephen himself comments that it can be difficult to convey the consequences of such an event to those who were not there at the time, perhaps more so in today’s ultra-violent hyper-reality of the 21st century. He also says in his Afterword that he tried to write the book in 1972, but that ‘even nine years after the deed, the wound was still too fresh.’ (page 737.)
So the stakes are high. What we have here is really a Twilight Zone style story with a time travel twist, an attempt to explore the idea of ‘what-if’ so beloved of authors, to attempt to show that the past is an unknown continent, unless you were there. It is perhaps no coincidence that King almost dedicates the book to Jack Finney, author of Time And Again, which he describes as ‘the great time-travel story’.
The story, in its bare outline, is pretty self-explanatory. Told in the first person, it is the story of Jake Epping is a High School teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine (where else?), who is asked to meet a friend, the local greasy-spoon owner Al Templeton, who wants a favour. Jake goes to the cafe to find that, overnight, Al has aged. What we find out is that this is an older Al, who tells Jake that he’s just spent years in the past, though only two minutes (‘it’s always two minutes’) have gone now. In his larder Al has a portal that links to Lisbon Falls 1958. Jake now has the chance to go back and change history: to stop President Kennedy being shot in 1963. Jake goes back to small-town America of the 1950’s, first as a trial then for real, revelling in the relative simplicity of life there – the look, the sounds, the peacefulness, the politeness – and falls in love with colleague Sadie Dunhill, whilst all the time preparing to alter history.
As this is a Stephen King novel, however, the sf-nal trappings are kept to a minimum. What this is really about is a wistful look back at a life gone by, as well as a reflection on whether it is acceptable to change things that are bad, or at least to have the choice to do so. It also allows Stephen to examine earlier America from the perspective of now, in that potentially romanticised Bradbury or Norman Rockwell kind of way, something that King himself acknowledges in the story himself. What Stephen actually does bring to light here is that there are parts of the older lifestyle that we could miss but at the same time there were parts of the 1950’s culture that we’re glad to see the back of – racism, poverty, the treatment of women. In the end, the idea that things then were not as good as we thought leads to the possibility that things now are not as bad as we sometimes think.
It is, again as you might expect from Stephen King, also a story of relationships. We have, most obviously, the developing love between Jake and Sadie in the 1950’s and 60’s. In counterpoint we have, albeit briefly, the relationships between Jake and his divorced wife, Christy, in 2011, and between Jake and his friend Al (which made me think Quantum Leap here) not to mention the relationship between Kennedy’s assassin Harvey Oswald and his wife, Marina in 1963. It may even be an examination of the ‘relationship’ between an assassin and his victim.
What the book cleverly does is allow the reader to relate to what’s going on by allowing Jake to examine his own thoughts and feelings on a voyage of self-discovery.
Fans of Stephen’s will appreciate some nice little links to previous work: some of the places in Derry that we went to in IT are revisited and Jake manages to talk to two of the characters from that book. There’s events mentioned from earlier books obliquely, and for Dark Tower fans the number 19 reappears. They’re not obvious but they may be noticed.
Before beginning to read this book I mentioned two possible concerns in the SFFWorld Forums. One was that I was a little uncomfortable reading about ‘facts’ in a work of fiction that was comparatively recent: indeed, when some of the characters involved are still alive in real life. Though Stephen mentions the conspiracy theories and the successive investigations, in the end here it is Oswald and Oswald alone that is seen as the lone gunman.
The second was that I was unsure as to whether the amount of understanding of the assassination needed, which is clearly so ingrained into Americans of a certain age, would translate to those younger than the event itself (I myself was born three months after the incident) or indeed those fans, like myself, in a different country. This was less of a problem than I thought. There’s enough hints along the way to keep the unknowledgeable reader following without feeling lost.
Though the plot is, frankly, a cliché, Stephen manages to breathe fresh air into it and make it a tale where, although the reader thinks they know what will happen, it is still eminently readable. It contains all those trademark King-isms – small town America, protagonist under crisis, the teacher hero (see also Johnny in The Dead Zone), the librarian (see IT) – and yet still manages to keep the pages turning.
To take such a world famous event and create a suspenseful tale without alienating the contemporary audience is also some mean feat. It would be easy in the hands of a lesser writer to drown the tale in superfluous detail, or to make the story depend on minutiae so dull that the reader would be lost. This, Stephen I’m pleased to type, does not.
Rather the opposite, in fact, despite the book’s length. Unlike Stephen’s last novel, Under the Dome, which for me was an overlong indulgence of a book that stereotyped the typical King characters to the point of caricature, 11.22.63 is a hefty tome that doesn’t outstay its welcome. Though it is still a little overlong in the middle and the ending perhaps too convenient, it does make an engaging and, most of all, entertaining read. It’s the best King I’ve read in a while.
On the strength of this we should be pleased and proud that an author of Stephen’s stature maintains an interest in the genre, using it to inform the masses that SF can inform, educate and allow us to examine things in a way that otherwise would be less. This one raises the game.
Mark Yon, November 2011.