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11/22/63: A Novel

11/22/63 - Stephen King The question any Constant Reader has to ask themselves upon reviewing any work by dear Mr. King is one of objectivity. If you're a fan of King, you'll know what I'm talking about in this review and it will be useful to you. If not, then this might not be helpful at all because you're likely to just completely pass up anything by King, but I'm going to try for you anyway because I personally think that people who write him off as a hack writer who tells mundane horror stories either haven't taken the time to let him spin his yarn or are snooty readers who don't want to be seen indulging in anything "too mainstream." I aim to change that, and while this book isn't the greatest of King's works, I certainly see it as a good starting point for anyone new to him. I'll try to do so without spoilers and I think I managed just that except in one part, that's hidden. So, in defense of Mr. King...

11/22/63 is full of emotion. It's not gripping and probably not as taught a thriller as you'd expect from a time travel story to stop one of the most important political assassinations in American history. Rather, the story unfolds like an old wooden roller coaster with long stretches of calm development interspersed with some terrifying and gripping moments. I have to admit, there is the possibility that some readers could get lost and bored in the longer stretches of calm, but there's something about King's narrative in this one that makes even a child of the 80s nostalgic for the 50s and if you're patient with it and let yourself fall into it, it can be incredibly rewarding. This is no naive rendition of a perfect bygone era either. There's a lot of innocence, beauty, hope and trust meshed with the uglier aspects of the time, the bigotry, small-town pettiness and hypocrisy that scar that classic American era. King captures it all with a subtlety and deftness that is transparent and unobtrusive. It seems cheap, to me at least, to identify the theme of a work as love. It's easy, trite and a catch-all, but I can think of no other word. This is a work of love, and a powerful one at that; love of a childhood full of memories where the cars were big and beautiful, love of a country full of hope and ideals and on the cusp of a future both terrifying and grand, and love of people - small-town folk who are honest and true to each other, love of their regional quirks ("A'yuh," "sensayuma" and "Miz Ellie" all) and most importantly the simple love that they have for one another that changes the world in a million profound and absurd ways without any pretention or intention and of life itself. I never found myself running home to complete the story, but I did catch myself picking it up to get lost. To go somewhere else, be someone else and live somewhere else for a little while, and when I think of that feeling, I can't help but say this is a five-star book, because that's what fiction is all about and it's done well here.

11/22/63 is filled with characters that I absolutely loved, and you can tell that King loves them too. Sure, Jake’s an everyman, but his lack of remarkableness is what’s so endearing. You could be him (and could you say you wouldn’t do things the same way?). All the characters that King dotes on have a charm and grace, an easy presence that you can cling to; because when the universe itself is your antagonist, the small, simple lighthearted conversation of a small-town librarian or local grocer are like big bright orange life preservers on a sea of darkness under a think scrim of ice. This novel surprised me in many ways. It's not about grand figures on a historical stage at all. It's about the little people just off-stage and how each thing they do contributes to a landslide, a butterfly effect that shapes the world around them. King puts larger than life figures like Oswald, a petty, wife-beating fool of a man you can't help but loath on a personal level, in their rightful place and takes politics out of Kennedy's death by making the central question not how much better the world would be with him at the helm during that turbulent era of the 60s, but how wrong it seems that a man of such easy humor and love of people was denied the right to live like the rest of us.

Again, King’s panorama of the 1950s captures a landscape of all-American folklore, where prices are cheap, folks are friendly and doors are unlocked and a blue plate special will set you back 95 cents. While these sublime characterizations of the past seem incredibly quaint, King uses them to contrast with “the other America” of the 50s. The physical landscape is a duality. In the shadow of every wholesome neighborhood with its rich root beer and cholesterol-be-damned feasts, is a looming, shadow of a town. Whether it be Derry or Dallas, King masterfully builds a slightly off kilter atmosphere – a sense of something dark and foul lurking below a just barely polite veneer. King describes it perfectly as a “barely withheld violence” that is palpable and anxiety producing. The result is pages of bucolic ease and openness where life goes on in its steady beat, where the power to change the future is full of potential and hopefulness just long enough to make the ensuing plunges into the seedier parts of America, of the King universe even, all the more harrowing, scary and painful. After extended stays in the Derrys and Dallases of the world, you’re almost begging for the respite that follows and looking forward to the next plunge even less. Partly that’s because how normal and likable Jake is. He’s normal, he’s good and not quite hapless. He’s got nothing extraordinary going on. He’s not ex-military, a gunslinger or a man with power. He’s an English teacher. A good one. (And man was I happy and ecstatic when he and big Mike pulled off the small town play!) And that bit of work in the past, the way Jake effects the lives of the people outside the bounds of his objective, felt more meaningful, more powerful and more successful than the rescue of the Janitor’s family, or the potential saving of a hopeful young president. The message is clear in all the iterations of the butterfly effect manifest in King’s tome: the little things we do that seem inconsequential are the most meaningful things we do in our lives. Its Jake Epping who shapes the future in the most meaningful ways, not George Amberson. And sometimes, well. Sometimes some things were just meant to be.

King is like Salinger or Fitzgerald in the sense that he has a really nifty habit of peeling away the veneer of American society to expose what’s rotten underneath. Rather than superficiality or materialism or the vacancy of values, King exposes the basic human ugliness that goes hand-in-hand with our species, specializing in the American variety. It’s the ugliness of racism, tribalism, petty superiorities and self-centered thinking epitomized by the ugly characters represented by the Oswalds, Dunnings, and the Claytons. Is he any less of an intellectual or revelatory because he doesn’t write in high English prose? I suppose to literary elitists, King’s narrative might be lacking a certain Dickensian sparkle, but his words encapsulate genuine feeling better than any other modern American writer save McCarthy. And his stories reveal essential aspects of the human condition as well as any witty satire by Swift (and really, is a pantry door portal to 1958 any less absurd than “A Modest Proposal…” would have been in the 19th century?) But hey, “sometimes a cigar is just a smoke and a story's just a story."

With all the implications of time travel, you can't help but wax philosophical at moments, but King controls these discussions rather well, lest they detract from the general narrative. Some prominent questions are mentioned and pondered just long enough to leave you with a Socratic sense that you're on the verge of something profound, then left as life, like it always does, takes precedence. Is it wrong to kill a man for a crime he has yet to commit? And in the preventing of said crime, does the solution have to be the removal of the piece from the game board of life? If I buy a soda and say a kind word to someone at just such a moment in the past, does that change who they'll marry? Whether they'll join the army? What meaning they place on their life? It's all so epic, and yet at the same time intensely personal. In the end, all we can do is live our lives and hope things turn out for the best. Jake never agonizes over these choices really, but that's not what this book is about. It's not a science fiction book about the mechanics of time-travel or even the butterfly effect. That's tangential. The pay-off isn't the altered future, but Sadie. This book is about life. (Dancing is life.) Sometimes it's humdrum, sometimes it's exciting. Sometimes its introspective and philosophical, other times we get caught up in events. I certainly found myself caught up in Jake's life - wanting the best for him, wanting him to call Sadie and frustrated with him for being obstinant, wanting him to teach and take on the school play and I mourned his losses like they were my own by the time we get to know him well enough. He's not my favorite King character (that spot is still reserved for good old Ralph from Insomnia), but he's a damn close second. I guess the personal disclaimer is that I like morally unambiguous characters. I'm a Superman fan first and foremost, but I like my Batman (Roland) stories just as well. It's easy to see how a person could become obsessive with their choices, especially with the ability to go back and do things just a little differently - just one more time... Jake struggles, like you or I would, and is heroic for it.

The writing here is top-notch. King's lexicon allows him to make good choices to capture the moment and the structure and flow of the story is part of the narrative. Themes and catchphrases are repeated (ad nauseum to some perhaps), but I found it reminiscent of the synchronicity of events. Some might see it as hitting the reader over the head and pounding away at the same points, but I didn't mind, it's just one of King's verbal ticks and when he does it I imagine sitting in a chair across from him as he tells me a yarn. It's personal and endearing and part of the way someone tries to tell you a story without editing (off the cuff, if you will), rather than annoying.

My only complaint (and it's a half-hearted one at that) was the "Citizen of the Century (2012)" bit at the end. In the end, I didn't want to know. The conclusion of Jake's formal narration is heart-crushingly sad and so life-like that it should have ended right there. We don't know the future and can't. Life is never a closed loop and we never do get to see how the things we did or didn't do will affect the world and Jake shouldn't have been able to either. It reveals too much of the grand mystery of things. That being said, there is a certain scene toward the end that tugs at the heart strings in a way that is indulgent but heart-warming and I suppose in the end, worth it all.

The highest compliment I can pay this book is simply this: I'd read it again.