True. And sometimes it's such a pleasure.
- Jake Epping
I have to be honest with you all, Dear Readers, I thought my first Stephen King post on this blog would be a different post entirely. That post would be The Talisman, which I still haven't gotten around to yet. But I should at least let on that Mr. King and I...we go way back.
The first time I encountered Stephen King's writing, I was in middle school. A lot of the girls in my grade (who, surprisingly, I had no interest in...that'd come later when they got better at backbiting) were reading It and Cujo. For me, King was just some trashy horror writer with a lot of work to his name...I'd tried It and been shocked and weirded out by the bathtub suicide in the early chapters but that was all I knew, really. But one afternoon I sat in the town's bookstore shelving copies of books while I waited for a carpool and I hit upon the books that would make me a lifetime fan: The Dark Tower.
These weren't the trashy-looking novels people carried to the beach. They weren't the horror novels meant to terrify and to give other people the author's nightmares. They sounded like very, very dark fantasy novels about a cowboy (oh, all right, a gunslinger) trying to find the titular tower. So I decided, being all of ten years old and sure I could handle reading such an adult book, that I was going to read the Dark Tower series. Sadly, I couldn't find the first book, so I had to start with book two, The Drawing of the Three.
My parents didn't agree with me.
Mostly my mother, who played the role of moral veto far more strongly than my father ever did. But either way, within moments of my bringing the book home, it was analyzed, flipped open to a random page, and taken out of reach indefinitely due to a major character abusing heroin. So my dad reached a compromise and said that if he could find a book that was more appropriate, he'd let me read that. The book he found was The Talisman. I instantly fell in love with it, and it's had a place on my bookcase ever since. And eventually Talisman led into more King, and I was a fan. I am a fan. I read my way through his work with a fervor I'd not experienced since my love of conspiracy theories. Which, of course, leads me to11/22/63.
11/22/63 is the story of one Jake Epping, a divorced English teacher who spends his time marking up the essays of GED candidates in a small high school. It is here he reads the essay of one Harry Dunning about the time that changed his life the most: when Harry's father murdered his family with a hammer, almost killing Harry but instead giving him severe brain damage. It is an essay that moves Jake, rocking him to his very core. While he ponders this (as he calls it) "watershed moment", something else happens that turns his life forever on a dime.
And then things get weird.
Jake frequents Al's diner; a trailer where the burgers are cheap, there's still a smoking section, and Al holds sway over an almost-empty establishment he runs practically at cost. One night, Al decides to show Jake a secret of his: In his pantry are a set of stairs that lead to a September day in 1958. Every time you enter, it's like someone hit a reset switch. Every time you leave, only two minutes have elapsed in the real world. And Al very much wants Jake to use it.
Al, you see, has a specific purpose: He's got his own watershed moment to fix. He wants to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting John F. Kennedy. But Al's not as young as Jake, and cancer's starting to take its toll on him, especially after his first attempt-- after his forays into the past, he's now terminally ill. So Jake is enlisted to go back in time and severely change history (he assumes) for the better. Between his need to try and fix Harry Dunning's life and Al's meddling to make sure he quits dragging his heels, Jake embarks off on his quest to make the world a better place.
But of course, it isn't that easy, and Jake will have to tangle with several major players as well as fighting the past itself if he ever hopes to succeed.
The first thing you should know about the book is that it isn't quite Stephen King's usual thing*. It's mainly historical fiction. Yes, Jake is a time traveler and uses this to his advantage, but the book isn't preoccupied with that. It's as much about exploring the past and the social climate as much as it is about Jake and his mission. Make no mistake, all of King's touches are there...the sense that the world is really a lot stranger than anyone gives it credit for, the strange nonsense words with ominous significance...even the call backs to earlier works**.
But Jake spends a lot of time working out how the past, well, works and less time agonizing over how his part of things are supposed to work. King put a lot of research and time into the novel, and it really shows-- from the first page to the last, you can get immersed in the world, and it helps get you involved in the story. This is a book that needs its immersion, and the amount of detail King manages to cram into every page-- authentic detail, I might add-- really helps out. The pace never seems to drag, and the ideas never really lose their sense of wonder.
Another reason to read this book is the tension. You're never sure Jake is going to make it, and that constant sense of tension is kept up through the whole book. As each new plot detail unfolds, it just adds to the suspense like a group of ball-bearings on a wet paper towel. You're sure something is going to give, and each time Jake scrapes by, there's a sense of relief for a few seconds until you remember the book is still going on. And then the tension starts to build again, slowly but surely...
And finally, the characters are all very well-realized. But this is Stephen King. If there's one thing the man knows how to do other than give people nightmares and make them paranoid about their bathrooms, it's characters and dialogue. This, combined with a sense of pacing not seen since his earliest novels, makes for one hell of a good ride. Jake is snarky and jaded, but somehow maintains a good sense of wonder. His lover from the past is someone very real and very human, which shows when she gets upset over Jake's having to lie to her about being "George Amberson". Each of the characters has very clear motivations, even Lee Harvey Oswald (who of course has to make an appearance)
However, the book does have its flaws. Well...one or two big ones. Chief among those is the entire section that takes place in Derry***. Yes; Derry, Maine: Home setting for IT, Insomnia, and a great many other books makes an appearance here for an entire section. It's where Harry Dunning grew up, and where his father murdered his family. So Jake spends several chapters trying to clean up the mess in Derry. During 1958, which is a significant year in King's timeline****. Cue the avalanche of references to previous books and the peculiar nature of King Country's second-creepiest town (the first of course being Jerusalem's Lot), including cameos from Richie Tozier and Beverly Marsh from IT, as kids. And, unlike previous nods and mentions, this one keeps going, pointing itself out with neon signs.
Second big flaw is a rather personal one. Just once, I'd like to see time travel succeed. It doesn't have to be an all the time thing, or even a constant thing. But I want to see time travel actually work for once, instead of everyone going "But you can't kill (Hitler/Oswald/John Wilkes Booth)! Otherwise history will be all lopsidedy!" Really, I don't care. It's fiction. It moves by its own internal logic. I want to see history dramatically changed in a story and I want to see it stick. While this isn't the point with King's book, it's still something that I think has remained a certain way for a long time, and it's time to shake up the status quo. Lord only knows, I ain't gonna do it, but someone should.
And finally, after writing what some might argue is the same essay on John F. Kennedy's assassination for a few years now, I have to say that the idea of Lee Harvey Oswald acting entirely of his own accord is ridiculous. Even if he shot the president, the political climate was too lopsided for him to have done it all on his own. And yes, I know, people have tried to hammer this point home. But people are schmucks. Considering the number of enemies Kennedy had, and the number of those enemies who had ties to Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald, it's almost simpler for a conspiracy than it is for him to be a lone man.
But both of those points are minutiae. This is a fantastic book. If you aren't a Stephen King fan, you should read this and give him a go. If you are a Stephen King fan, you should definitely read this, as it's him at arguably his best since he stopped writing The Dark Tower*****. I'm glad I took the time to read this book, and even more glad I actually wound up with my own copy, thanks to my Uncle Dan and the recent holiday season (And since I know you read this...thank you. Thank you very, very much). So...yeah. Find this. Read this. You won't regret it if you do.
Next time: Retro-futurism begins as Caius tackles Adam Christopher's Empire State. And sometime in the near future: The Pilo Family Circus.
* Which, honestly, is pretty cool. The guy's writing what he wants to, and he's not afraid to experiment. I'm glad he's at this point in his life. The only thing as good as a hungry writer is a writer who's having fun.
**And we'll get to those in a moment.
***See? I told you!
****The basics: It's where the first section of IT takes place, when a group of kids take on a gigantic spider-monster that feeds on fear and force it into hibernation. Yeah. I know. Just...just look up the book if you're curious, yeah?
*****His magnum opus. A divisive series, but a) I like it, and b) It's freaking amazing. So there.