Altering the past
It’s been many years since I read a Stephen King book; not because I haven’t liked some of them, but for a combination of reasons including a dislike of most horror and a prevailing impulse to call his editor and tell him to automatically edit out 300 pages from everything King writes. There was a time, in my youth, when I gravitated towards gigantic tomes—the longer the better!—and managed to immerse myself until the deed was done. I find these days that I am a bit more impatient, and it takes some really good writing, story-telling, and character/world building to keep my attention.
But…as I have mentioned before, I am a sucker for time travel. Also, for all children of the ’60s, the biggest conundrum was and remains the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, that new, young, charismatic leader whose death was variously chalked up to Lone Gunman Lee Oswald or a mysterious shooter from the grassy knoll, and attributed to J. Edgar Hoover, Lyndon Johnson (impatient to succeed), or the CIA for some reason having to do with Cuba. Put those elements together, and it was inevitable that I would get around to reading 11-22-63 by Stephen King.
The idea of going back in time to kill Hitler or witness the birth of Jesus or whatever has always been out there; but most time travel writers find some unbeatable reason why it can’t be done—like simply stating, “If something happened, then it happened.” otherwise known as the Novikov self-consistency principle. Even if you allow for the possibility of paradox, the problem with changing something in the past is, of course, that it has the potential to alter all future outcomes, so even if it were possible, people might hesitate to do it—unless there was a really good reason. This is the idea upon which King’s book is built—that if JFK hadn’t died, everything would have turned out differently—presumably better (for instance, no war in Vietnam)—and that’s a really good reason to go back and thwart the assassination.
The method of time travel in this book is vague. It’s not even loosely based in science or invention—there’s no time machine, no De Lorean or Tardis, no black hole in space, it’s more like a version of Narnia, reached via a portal at the back of a wardrobe or, in this case, the pantry of a local diner. And it leads to only one place and time, a small town in Maine in 1958. It is from this place and time that Jake Epping, aka George Amberson departs 2011 and takes up residence in the ’50s, making a living as a substitute teacher while he scopes out Oswald, his associates, his various addresses, and his ultimate destination—Dallas, the Texas School Book Depository, and November 22nd, 1963, when JFK drives through town in an open car to meet his fate.
In the process of taking on this quest, “George” will also meet and change the lives of a bunch of other people, and fall for the love of “his” life, small-town school librarian Sadie Dunhill, thereby endlessly complicating what was already nigh impossible to achieve.
All the potential for a roller-coaster ride of a story is built right in, and King provides a lot of exciting moments…and a lot of sitting and waiting. Since the only entry point to the past is 1958, and returning to 2011 means the time on the “other side” resets to 1958, Jake has no other choice but to take on an identity that will allow him to live in the past for five years while waiting for the right moment to take out Lee Harvey Oswald. Even though there is research involved, and even though we are provided with such distractions as a rescue mission for an unrelated family and Jake’s romance with the beautiful but ungainly Sadie, it’s about 700 pages of waiting before we get to the ultimate climax, which then goes by quickly and with much less explanation than this reader would have liked.
Also, you have to keep in mind that even though this is presented as an alternate history, Stephen King is, when all is said and done, a horror writer. He can’t resist adding in sinister bits involving characters or even whole towns that give him the willies; he makes the hero the target of various ill-intentioned people or groups, leading to a fair amount of violence and uncertainty; and history itself is cast as the “monster” of the tale. Jake comments (more than 60 times, as another Goodreads reviewer helpfully provided) on the immutability of the past and its obduracy, and this irrevocable tendency manifests as a series of catastrophes that intervene between Jake and his goal. No, it’s not a clown, but it’s still creepy.
The part I found most disap-pointing is the many oppor-tunities King misses to comment on the time and place as it was; instead, he does a virtual whitewash. Despite some of the threatening characters, questionable neighborhoods, and ominous events, the 1950s are primarily presented as a place where the “real” food tastes so much better (butter, root beer, deep-fried lobster), people in the ideal small town are trusting (leaving their doors unlocked and greeting one another as they walk down the street), and the automobiles are an aficionado’s dream (tailfins). He mentions the ever-present smoking of cigarettes and the bad smells of unregulated industry and diesel-belching transport, yet fails to find them particularly offensive; he gives (and then repeats) exactly one example of the separate-and-unequal state of bathrooms for whites vs. “colored people” but neglects to further notice or comment upon any inequities he sees, whether they be race-related or examples of rampant sexism. I think I could have forgiven this aspect of the book more easily had it been a fast-paced thriller; but there are at least (the aforementioned) 300-400 pages where we wander from New Orleans to Dallas to Fort Worth and back again, pondering what little is known about Oswald, attempting to observe he and his family and his associates, and waiting, waiting, waiting. Some of that waiting could have been more profitably spent.
Ultimately, I did enjoy more than half of this flash to the past…but for all the reasons cited above, I could have loved it better.