For years, I managed to be an avid reader, an English teacher, and a so-so friend while avoiding the Maine man of the American literary landscape, Stephan King. I never liked horror and always had stacks of other uber-imaginative writers like Phillip Pullman, Douglass Adams, and Suzanne Collins to get through–authors sure to appease my need to read and discuss fantastic adventures with students and book buddies. So I lived blissfully ignorant of one of the best selling authors of all time.
Stupid, I know.
But then my boss, apparently sensing my vitamin-K deficiency, gave me 11/22/63 for Christmas and everything changed.
I mean, check out the cover. We’re allowed to judge it, right? Newsprint? Blood? Alternate histories? It seems to combine the highlights of the other three aforementioned authors. In that, it succeeds: this is one hell of a page-turner.
I’m pleased to say this 849-page romp through time and across country reads as fast as your favorite comic book. While King’s protagonist, Jake Epping, is no Hiro Nakamura, his commitment to changing the past for the better is just as exciting and even more epic. The story unfolds as Epping (like me, a friendly neighborhood English teacher) entertains his friend’s invitation to visit “The Nifty Fifties” just to see what it’s like. A massive quest begins from there, as in every good time-travel story.
I hereby certify this review is sans spoilers, but I can freely divulge that the plot involves trying to stop the Kennedy assassination. (You know what would happen when you saw Titanic, right?) King mentions he’s been researching this book since he started writing in the 70’s, and, given the amount and accuracy of his research–including his ability to account for decades of conspiracy theories–he manages to capture the paradoxical congeniality and anxiety of the age with aplomb.
King’s greatest accomplishment, however, is to explore the moral gray areas around how to think about the past. If victors write history, then time travelers (i.e. writers and historians) have a responsibility recreate the past in a more neutral way so readers can make their own interpretations. While the protagonist struggles like Hamlet throughout the book whether to change the past or not, we are invited to agonize along with him. As an acolyte in the Church of King, I’m not sure if his other writings do this, but I appreciate an adventure than leaves readers’ with some breathing room.
Janet Maslin of the New York Times says of King: “he has lately written with more heart and soul, leaving the phantasmagorical grisliness behind.” This change of style is what drew me in, and the incredible effort of making this narrative work is what got me to the quantum leap along with Epping. With additions to the cannon like Under the Dome and the expansion of the classic The Dark Tower series, I’m glad to be a new fan with a lot to look forward to!
This is a call to Stephen King fans new and old: What should I read next?