I finished 11/22/63 at 4 a.m. It’s a doorstop of nearly 850 pages—and it’s very very good. I have admired Stephen King’s work, the excerpts and articles and the classic book about writing, but this was the first novel of his I’ve read. Can’t handle horror. Have no skin for it. Horror haunts me and creeps me out so I was never brave enough to tackle Carrie or The Shining or any of the mega-bestsellers that made King’s reputation. 11/22/63 is spooky and weird but it is also an addictive story that pulls you through from open to Afterword because you want to find out what happens and you know the people King has created and their fate is important to you.
It is possible to stop right there. That’s what books are supposed to do so you should read this one. (Maybe you could take it in large bites so you don’t have to stay up until 4 a.m. though.) I’m not quite ready to abandon the experience and move on so a few words about the world of 11/22/63 will allow me to relive it a bit. The fiction is a time travel and the present-day hero steps back into 1958 to begin his adventures. He is reluctant—the book does follow Campbell’s “hero’s journey” and you can sort that out as you read it. But he is intrigued and quickly hooked. A dying friend reveals the portal to 1958 and entrusts Jake Epping, a high school teacher, with his life’s mission: travel back in time and prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas.
Epping takes a stack of 1950s silver certificate dollars, a fake i.d. and identity as George Amberson, and a sheaf of notes about Oswald’s life and the sporting events of the time and, eventually, assumes the challenge. But first he tests the theory by foiling a brutal domestic crime that affected the janitor of his high school—to see if the time travel actions really hold in the present. It works and, with enormous trepidation and curiosity, he sets out. Along the way, Epping encounters life in the age of sock hops, real Co’ Colas with cane sugar, people who say “Can I help you?” when you need help and don’t lock their front doors. He places unlikely bets that he wins to bankroll his exploits—when you know the outcome in advance this is not hard. He falls in love with and acquires a cool ragtop, a snub revolver and a fiancée and tries to remember to ditch 21st century slang along with his cell phone.
The magical world of the 50s is, in reality, not all that magical, as Epping finds out. People are violent, racist, ignorant, trapped in dirt and poverty, and die of physical illnesses for which there are not yet cures. People are also innocent, open, caring, in touch with an essential kindness, and accustomed to savoring life at a human, not a high-tech, pace. Epping likes it so much he considers staying once his task is complete. But the past is a living entity in King’s mind and it doesn’t relinquish its hold on history lightly. Malevolent things occur and the stakes rise sharply. Epping prevents some horrors from happening but other, equally vicious and ghastly acts exact an exorbitant price. Gain is offset by wrenching loss. Spooky stuff drives the plot and consumes Epping’s attention. Meals, clothes, guns, gas and rents are cheap but heroism will cost you everything.
There is incredible research in this novel and the world Epping visits is authentic and fascinating. It’s almost history—but it isn’t. It’s extraordinary Stephen King, which is, in some ways, even better.
11/22/63: A Novel Stephen King | Scribner 2011