11/22/63 is the first Stephen King book I’ve read in decades. It’s my book club’s February selection (selected by another member), but it’s a book I also put on my wishlist when it was published last year. Why, I’m not sure. I might have been intrigued by the Kennedy angle, or the time-travel scenario. My guess is mostly that it sounded fun, and also that I was feeling…not exactly guilty for not having read anything by King (unless one counts On Writing) in such a long time, but curious about what had changed or what I was missing.
I was right: reading 11/22/63 was fun. This novel would be terrific for a long plane ride, for the beach, or for general entertainment. Jake Epperson is a 35-year-old high-school English teacher in a small Maine town. Jake is approached by an acquaintance, Al Templeton, who is dying of lung cancer. Al has a secret, a “rabbit hole” he discovered in the storeroom of a diner he bought long ago. The rabbit hole takes a person back to the same date and place every time: September 9, 1958. After several journeys to the past, Al discovers a few things about time travel. One, of course, is that he can stay as long as he likes and enter events directly to affect the future. The second is that every trip he takes back in time resets events. In other words, anything he did on his previous trip is undone by the next trip.
As with most time travel stories, many complications exist, but the gist of the novel is this: Al wants Jake to travel back through the rabbit hole and stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. On many of his trips to the past, Al has collected information about Lee Harvey Oswald that will help Jake change events. After taking several short “test” trips to the past to test the theory (a subplot that involves undoing a crime involving the family of someone Jake knows in the present), Jake agrees to go back in time to stop Oswald.
In the past, Jake Epperson becomes George Amberson. Because the rabbit hole always takes the person back to September 9, 1958, Jake/George must find a way to spend the intervening years before he can travel to Dallas and track Oswald. Those intervening years are what make up most of the book. After undoing some past events in Maine and spending some time in Florida, he eventually takes a job as a high-school English teacher in the small town of Jodie, Texas. He becomes involved with a woman named Sadie Dunhill, makes real friends, tracks Oswald when he can. It’s all too long to explain here. And in the end, he tries to do what he promised, all at some great cost, which he must then decide if he wants to undo by going back through the rabbit hole one last time.
Like I said, it’s all too long to explain here, which is to say: it’s too long. The relationship between George and Sadie takes up too much of the book, and in the long run Sadie herself is not all that interesting. Her story/subplot is rather melodramatic, but luckily King shifts back frequently to Jake/George’s task at hand, which is to stop Oswald, so it’s easy to read through the Sadie parts quickly (if you wish).
The only other thing that bothered me about the book was a bit of hokey heavy-handedness, and the repetition of certain phrases and ideas. “Life can turn on a dime”–that’s an old saw that gets lots of play. The other one is “Dancing is life.” If the narrative is doing its job, the author doesn’t need to spell out the message. And in this case, the story alone works well; the reader doesn’t need to be told or reminded. As for time travel, King handles it nicely, although again he gets a little heavy-handed with “harmonies” toward the end of the book, having Jake/George point things out instead of letting the reader uncover things. It wasn’t as mind-bending as I thought it would be, but I also liked the fact that the actual logistics never got in the way of the story. If you just go with it, it works well.
All in all, I enjoyed 11/22/63, and for it being such a long book, it was a quick read. I liked it a lot, but I didn’t love it. The story overall was engrossing, and if I were rating it on Goodreads or Library Thing, I’d give it a solid 3 stars.