11/22/63 by Stephen King (Scribner’s, 2011)
I almost didn’t even read this one because I don’t usually like the more science-fictional Kings. But I dug The Dome, which sets up a sci-fi conceit (aliens have dropped an invisible bowl over Peyton Place) in order to ramp up the action in what is otherwise a John O’Hara-esque saga of small town politics. 11/22/63 works in a similar vein. It’s got a time travel pretext, but it’s no more about time travel than Carrie is about telekinetics. Carrie of course is really about the horrors of adolescence, and 11/22/63 is really about later-life anxieties—paths not taken, choices that meant decades of commitment but which ultimately didn’t work out. It’s about good intentions and second chances and “If I knew then what I know now,” with “then” happening to happen dozens of years before the book’s hero was even born.
Surely I read any number of reviews and descriptions which dwell on the time-travel theme. But, even more than the dome in The Dome, King uses it as a means to an end and doesn’t make a huge deal of the mechanics of such a trip. A guy is directed down to the basement of a diner and emerges in the early 1960s.
To shorthand this, as many critics have, as the tale of a man bent on stopping the Kennedy assassination, is criminal. Kennedy’s a part of it, and Oswald a much bigger part, but the biggest part is the life-living that gets done of the way to the titular showdown. The point is not that Jake Epping is as driven as he is to change history. It’s that he travels halfway across the country, settles down in Texas, finds a town and a job he likes there, and falls in love. He works his quest to stop Oswald into a much grander existence where, all along, the lives of everyday people he knows and respects matter as much as the folks he knows will be remembered as key figures of world history. This is a coming-of-middle-age novel rooted in respect for one’s neighbors.
I think this is one of Stephen King’s all-time best books. A lot of them lose me when they wrap up the plots without wrapping up the humanity. This one is heartwarming throughout. It has the sort of love scenes (and sex scenes!) which King ordinarily shies away from, and they’re here for the right reasons, showing the innocence and empowerment of the ‘60s.
It might help to be a baby-boomer to appreciate it fully, but 11/22/63 speaks to anyone aware of greater forces—political, social, economic—governing the world in which you’re trying to catch a break.
It was fantastic reading 11/22/63 back-to-back with Michael Choquette’s 1960s counterculture anthology The Someday Funnies, which also mingles real history with heightened personal emotions. Both books are garish and colorful and bold, and much deeper than even their admirers let on. Not noticing stronger powers at work—that’s the ‘60s for you.