Stephen King,
(Scribner, 2011)

The day I turned 6 years old was also the day our American president was assassinated in Dallas. Every year after that, amidst remnants of gift wrap and mouthfuls of cake, I had to endure hearing accounts of the anniversary variety: some from the people around me, and many from TV, radio and newspapers. It's tough to be merry and celebratory whenever everyone around you is soberly reminiscing about where they were when. It's enough to make a birthday girl feel like an intruder at her own party. And a real heel to even expect a party in the first place.

Alas: we who were born on the cusp of Scorpio and Sagittarius were abruptly let off the hook in the fall of 2001. Since then, Virgos who were born on 9-11 have known exactly what we went through for three and a half decades. In terms of relative publicity, the tragedy of more than 3,000 innocents has trumped the murder of one.

Yet the circumstances of 11/22/63 still capture our imaginations and cause all sorts of speculations and arguments ... because of, and in spite of, official reports and investigations. Enter Stephen King and his newest book. I may be an avid reader, but I have to admit that I'd never before picked up one of his novels. With such relevance to my own life, though, how could I resist this one?

Thirty-five-year-old Jake Epping teaches high school and GED English in Lisbon Falls, Maine, in 2011. His is a relatively tame existence (alcoholic and adulterous ex-wife, notwithstanding) until his friend and local diner operator Al Templeton lets him in on a big secret. A time-travel "rabbit hole" sits at the back of his pantry. And on a regular basis, Al has been retreating to September 1958. At first, he used the trips to benefit his business. But eventually Al decided that he would try to deliberately change bad events from the past, when armed with enough details. His goal became thwarting Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. He assembled scads of facts but just couldn't complete the task. And now that Al is dying of cancer, he is passing his mission on to Jake. The teacher becomes a willing student and a compatriot in the scheme.

Naturally, there are complications to the process. The overarching one is that "The past does not want to be changed. The past is obdurate." (OB-dur-ate = not giving in readily; stubborn; obstinate; inflexible.) Also: "Resistance to change is proportional to how much the future might be altered by any given act." In other words, the Universe may very well thrust as many obstacles in front of you as is feasible (and even some that seem unlikely or impossible) in order to maintain what it knows to be the truth. Good luck altering it, boyo.

After Jake takes on several test cases, so to speak, he heads south from Maine and into the late 1950s and early '60s. As fictional George Amberson, he finds five years' worth of activities to participate in before the crucial day arrives. This is a time and place where men wear thin neckties, most people smoke like fiends, and racism is rampant and a sad fact of daily life. It's also a more trusting environment than the one we have in the 21st century, with fouler air but better-tasting food. At its core, this book is a print embodiment of JFK meets the Back to the Future series and Groundhog Day, with a hint of Field of Dreams and Kate & Leopold thrown in for good measure. Jake witnesses the convergence of the past with the future, and he discovers harmonics between people and events that should have been separated by miles and by decades. It's almost mystical, on occasion. "We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why. Not until the future eats the present, anyway. We know when it's too late." It's a challenging road for anyone to undertake, both mentally and physically.

Because in the midst of it all, of course, he meets a girl: a school librarian named Sadie Dunhill, who is an accident-prone chain-smoker but is who lovable, all the same. Here is a complication to his script that he had not expected. "For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all." Can he ever reveal his true identity and purpose to her? If the answer is yes, will it be before or after he dispatches the potential killer in his sights? Might he be able to bring Sadie back with him to 2011? Or could he stay with her in 1963? If this book had a theme song, it would be the music from the Michael J. Fox skateboard scene, "The Power of Love" by Huey Lewis and the News. We turn the pages, wondering not only what will become of Lee Harvey and the President, but also of Jake and Sadie. All of their threads intertwine, aiming toward a climax point that is all too familiar, either from our own pasts or from the pages of history books.

Does Jake/George succeed in stopping Oswald and saving JFK? Why would I ruin your reading enjoyment to answer that question?

King has crafted quite a spellbinding tale, and one that has its basis in fact. Obviously, I knew that he was a good writer. I did read his nonfiction book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, when it was released in 2000. But I was still blown away by his language, his style, his timing and his innate ability to weave a complex story from a single simple idea. He offers more instances of "What if?" than the average person could ever anticipate or ask for. Throughout his narrative, we find ourselves lost in our own musings. What is the past, and what is the future? What does it mean to be "home"? Should we consider the ramifications of absolutely every one of our own actions? What should be the most important part of our lives, anyway? This book is as engrossing as it gets. It's the most thought-provoking story that I've read in decades. It might even be my favorite book, ever.

My advice for prospective readers is that they first read Ray Bradbury's sci-fi short story, "A Sound of Thunder," before launching into King's version. It's something that I found years ago, loved, and used in a classroom lesson plan. Frequent references to it (via "the butterfly effect") surface here; but you won't recognize and fully understand the context until Sadie mentions the source, late in the game. Do your homework, and you'll be ahead of everyone else.

At 849 pages, 11/22/63 is not for the casual reader, no matter how intriguing and fast-paced its storyline may be. Nevertheless, it is truly an amazing book. If you don't close it every once in a while, just to take a deep breath and say, "Oh my God," then you aren't paying close enough attention. I heartily recommend it to anyone with a brain, and to any Baby Boomers who want to revisit what they half-remember as a simpler and easier time. King has created the ultimate illustration of the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for." From now on, I will think of his expert writing and Jake Epping's time travel adventures whenever my birthday comes around again. I may need to make it an annual birthday week read.

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Corinne H. Smith

31 December 2011

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