11/22/63 – Stephen King (2011)

11-22-63-coverNever one to be pegged into a hole, horror meister Stephen King has dabbled into many other genres before including mystery (The Colorado Kid) and fantasy (The Dark Tower series) and even plain drama (The Shawshank Redemption). He even wrote the underrated science fiction The Running Man, under his Richard Bachman non de plume. But writing a science fiction time travel story was stretch even for him. And what better topic to tackle than the assassination of JFK, one of the most controversial and conspiracy ladled event in history.

Jake Epping is a simple, middle of the road school teacher when Al, the owner of his favorite dinner, confronts him with an impossible yet incontrovertible time travel portal that he stumbled upon at the back of his storage room. The quirk of the portal is that it places travelers to a specific time and place, 11:58 a.m. September 9,1958, Lisbon Falls, Maine, every time they enter. Once they return, they have lost exactly two minutes in contemporary time regardless of the time they have spent in the past. Al, now visibly order after having just returned from a multi-year trip to the past, then tells James of his master plan to reconcile one of recent history’s greatest misfortunes, the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, an act that he believes could eliminate the Vietnam war and other tragedies.

Al used to make regular pilgrimages to the past, regularly buying extremely cheap meat that he brought back to sell in his dinner. When Al got the idea to make meaningful changes he traced and followed Lee Harvey Oswald up until a short time before the alleged actual shooting, taking detailed notes of every aspect he could, but not being able to avert the killing himself. Now on his deathbed, he wants Jake to take his notes and follow through to change history.

With some trepidation Jake agrees, but only by first trying to correct another crime earlier, opting to change the life of one of his former students. But changing history is tricky business. The harmonic forces of nature fight back and the bigger the change you’re trying to effect the greater the push back. After averting a murder that would impact the formative years of his future student, Jake returns only to learn that while he did positively impact his students conditions growing up, the end result was not what he expected.

But now convinced he could can change history, he decides to forge ahead (well, not ahead, behind in fact) and sacrifice going back to 1958 again, and then living out the intervening years until the title date of 22nd November 1963, the date that Kennedy was killed. Jake takes on an entirely new persona in the past, but road to complete his mission does not only encounter natural forces putting up stumbling blocks, life gets in the way. Jake discovers that the past can be quite, comforting and innocent place, devoid of modern nuisances. And then he meets Sadie…

Clocking in at 840 odd pages 11/22/63 is what I like to call a Brick novel. The second trip back for the actual Kennedy mission starts only slightly before halfway point of novel. So the novel is really two journeys, the first laying the foundation and some of the ground rules for time travel. That is not to say that this is a padded novel. King manages to hold interest throughout, most of it being quite riveting. If anything, the pace loses a bit of steam after the ‘event’ and some tough decisions that have to be made by Jake. But the distinction between the first and second time travel trips can almost be considered as two great stories for the price of one, both trips peppered with anecdotal historical events which in themselves can be engaging. In short, another great King novel.

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