Friday, January 13, 2012

UNDERCOVER REVIEWS - Stephen King’s 11/22/63

Review by Andrew Salmon

The case can be made that Stephen King is the most successful pulp writer of all time. Not the most prolific, or beloved, but the most successful. With dozens upon dozens of best sellers and as many movies made from his vast body of work, King has given us a treasure trove of memorable books.

11/22/63 is not one of them.

That’s not to say the book is bad and not worth a read. Rather the novel falls victim to not only King’s apparent inability to edit himself but also the reality of the publishing industry today.

First things first, let’s get to the story.

11/22/63 is about a teacher, Jake Epping, who through an acquaintance running a rundown diner, learns that a wormhole or passageway back into the past resides in the dilapidated eatery. Stepping through, one leaves 2011 behind and winds up in September, 1958. After a quick trip to see for himself that the owner of the diner isn’t crazy, Jake learns that the diner owner is dying of lung cancer (he smokes like a chimney) and is unable to carry out a plan he wants Jake to undertake in his place, namely, to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963.

That’s the story in a nutshell and one would think it shouldn’t take 842 pages to tell. Well, if you were thinking that, you’re exactly right. The first 300 pages of the novel grab you by the throat and won’t let go. We learn the information summarized above and see Jake’s first attempt at changing the past by preventing the deranged father of the school janitor from killing all but one member of the man’s family on Halloween night 1958. The pages fly by as we learn that Jake can indeed change the past and if he can stop one murderer, why not Lee Harvey Oswald?

Before getting into the novel’s wrong turn, I should point out that King does an exceptional job of recreating the past. There was a little too much explanation for this reader as I was born shortly after the events of 1963, but I could see how younger readers or even those unfamiliar with how different the past was from today would need this historical grounding. The level of research King put into the book is staggering.

However, once Jake heads back to the past to save Kennedy, the book loses its momentum. Thing is, King has built into the story that one of the rules of his version of time travel is that anyone going back always arrives in September, 1958. Same day, same time. And so, for Jake to save the President, he will have to spend a convenient 5 years in the past before he can make an attempt to change it. Convenient, that is, for the publisher who wants to sell a new King brick at $39.99. Not convenient for readers.

Yup, we get to travel along with Jake for 5 whole years and, ultimately, his adventures in yesteryear coupled with more details from that bygone era simply can’t compete with trying to stop Oswald from killing Kennedy and this reader soon lost interest. Getting a job as a teacher, Jake soon falls in love, is putting on school plays and getting involved in the lives of the supporting cast and the book quickly becomes bogged down for more than 350 pages of padding. During which, Jake does track Oswald when the gunman returns to the US from the Soviet Union and plans to stop him from shooting the President but really this takes a back seat to Jake’s Excellent Adventure. And, really, this can’t happen. Offset against preventing one of the pivotal moments in history, this book within a book slows the story to a backwards crawl. A deranged ex-husband is thrown into the mix to try to liven up the love story, but, again, can this really compare with changing history?

When Jake finally does get around to trying to prevent the Kennedy assassination, the story picks up steam again but, by then, I found myself reading just to find out what happens rather than because I was still emotionally involved in the tale. A quick look at the back cover of the novel reveals whether or not Jake is successful but, of course, changing the past comes with a price. It’s a price others have paid and King’s constant reminding us of the “butterfly effect” will tell savvy readers where the novel is going. And it does.

I had high hopes for 11/22/63 as I love a good time-travel tale and preventing the Kennedy assassination should have, by itself, provided more than enough story material. But King’s execution of the story is flawed at best. Endless detours, a one-note portrayal of Oswald as a wife-beating loser and a predictable ending sour what could have been a King classic. Although King can bump one word up against another with the best of them, the novel is simply too long, takes forever to get to the ‘moment,’ then falls into cliché by the end. Even Jake’s transformation from mild-mannered teacher to lone gunman is barely touched upon and this parallel evolution mirroring Oswald’s would have been fascinating reading.

Is 11/22/63 worth your time? I’d say yes if you simply love King’s writing style (and there are references/cameos from Christine and It and who knows how many I didn’t catch) or get swept up in the character of Jake and his struggles when they take center stage over changing the course of history. I didn’t. Your mileage may vary.

My advice would be to wait for the eventual movie as the non-Kennedy stuff will be the first to go for time considerations. What could have been a great tale for the ages is, instead, only mildly interesting due to its long-windedness. 11/22/63 is mediocre King at best.

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