Stephen King's 11/22/63 rewinds time to the JFK assassination
By Stephen King. Scribner, 849 pp, hardcover
“The past is obdurate.”
It’s a common chorus in Stephen King’s new novel, 11/22/63, but it’s not a new idea to those familiar with time-travel fiction. From The Twilight Zone to Peggy Sue Got Married, it’s pretty much a given that the past is fiercely static.
Still, you can’t blame a guy for trying, and King’s protagonist, Maine schoolteacher Jake Epping, certainly does give it the old college try.
Recruited by a dying friend to finish his mission—preventing the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy in 1963—Epping travels through a mysterious time portal located in the pantry of a local diner.
It’s unclear why the portal is there, or how exactly it works, but one thing is sure: it always leads to September 9, 1958. And since that’s a long time before the assassination, Epping must cool his heels for a number of years until he can begin the hunt for Lee Harvey Oswald, the layabout loser nabbed as JFK’s killer.
Of course, the big question in King’s book (as in real life) is: did Oswald act alone? Luckily for Epping, he has plenty of time to find out: five years to hang around Texas and nose through Oswald’s back story, as well as that of the enigmatic George de Mohrenschildt, a member of the local Russian expat community and, quite possibly, Oswald’s CIA handler.
It’s a great story—thrilling, actually, in many parts—and one that King has obviously poured a lot of himself into. The big payoff, however, is in King’s carefully nuanced re-creation of the past. Or, more specifically, Epping’s view of it.
When he first passes through the portal, what Epping finds resembles a Norman Rockwell painting. Likewise, King’s prose is gauzy and rose-coloured. A sense of dread soon falls over the proceedings, however, as Epping journeys to Derry, Maine, in a crossover with King’s 1986 novel It (the red and white 1957 Plymouth Fury from 1983’s Christine also plays a prominent role).
By the time Epping gets to Texas, the text positively exudes the seething tensions—racial, political, economic, and social—that were soon to tear the country apart at the seams. This is Rob and Laura Petrie’s America, to be sure, but it’s also the America of George Wallace and Bull Connor.
The past, this past, is not just a mid-century-modern swirl of martinis and cigarette smoke: it’s a story of average people and a turbulent nation on the verge of massive, radical change.
It’s a time that King knows well (he was 16 at the time of the Kennedy assassination) and holds an obvious fondness for. Touching on everything from popular music to long-gone brands to mores and social conventions, King drops enough detail to flesh out a landscape that’s not just believable, but, well, real.
At a whopping 849 pages, 11/22/63 can, at times, get ponderous. A romantic subplot seems extraneous for the longest time before eventually being folded into the main action. And perhaps a little too much time is spent on the details of Epping’s day-to-day life for the half-decade before that fateful afternoon in Dallas. Couldn’t the time portal have delivered him to, say, 1961?
But those are minor quibbles. Eventually, King ties everything together into a conclusion that is immensely thrilling, scary, and thought-provoking. Not to mention satisfying.
And, in the end, it becomes clear that the story really transcends Oswald, Kennedy, and the idea of a conspiracy. What King is really digging at here are the deeper issues of fate, free will, and the timelessness of love.
The past is obdurate? Hell, yes. But not necessarily set in stone.