11/22/1963

I don't know how long Stephen King's 11/22/1963 usually is but I read the large text version which clocks in at 1031 pages. (Including notes, acknowledgments, etc.) I didn't read it when it first came out because I thought who would want to read a thousand pages about a terrible event? Not just any terrible event, a “peculiarly American” event, that has already had millions and millions of words written about it. Thankfully 11/22/1963 isn't really about JFK's assassination. It's more about what extremes we will go to and why. How hard will we work to right a wrong? When we say we wish we could change the past do we really mean it?

Jake Epping is a man waiting for change, going through the motions, not really engaged in anything. He's getting over a painful separation and divorce, teaching and picking up some extra dollars helping adults get their GEDs. A student essay about a horrifying event is still on his mind when Al, the owner of the local diner, introduces him to something fantastical; a time traveling portal. Unlike other time travel assistance we encounter in fiction this portal always goes back to the very same time and day; a sunny afternoon in 1958. Al assures Jake that no matter how long someone stays in the past only two minutes have gone by when they return to 2011. Al has a master plan, which you can probably guess from the title. He wants to go back and stop JFK's assassination, which he believes will also save Bobby Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, and all of the soldiers who died in the Vietnam war. Al has gone back many, many times, most recently trying to stay from 1958 until the assassination, but he contracted a fatal illness, and is now trying to recruit Jake to take his place.

If Jake hadn't just read the essay about how the author's family was slaughtered he might have made a different decision, but with the essay fresh in his mind he decides to try to stop it from happening. After all Al has told him that every time someone steps through the portal the world resets, putting everything back the way it was before either of them ever went back. Does he really have anything to lose? Besides, you know, his life and his sanity.

If you are not familiar with Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's brilliant musical Assassins you might want to take some time to listen to the soundtrack. There is a scene where John Wilkes Booth comes to speak to Lee Harvey Oswald in the book depository, shortly before the shooting. In the show Oswald is planning to commit suicide but Booth wants him to “kill the president of the United States”, promising him everlasting fame. You can see a college production of the scene in this clip. (There is more in the next scene, which should auto-load.)

Because I know this soundtrack so well lines from the musical kept popping into my head as I read 11/22/1963. When Jake thinks of Love Field I hear the announcement from Assassins about the plane touching down on the tarmac at Love Field. The echoing details from both book and musical made my reading more surreal, as well as richer. I also realized that almost everything I knew about the murder came from either the show or from hearing conspiracy theories debated or debunked. But in the end none of that matters because the novel is about so much more than that one moment where so many lives were altered.

Jake hopes to save three families once he is in the past. Then he will have to wait years until it's time to try to avert the Oswald attack. Much of the story is about how he spent his time, who he met, what mistakes he made and how he felt about it all.

Just the first part of the book, where he makes the first change in the time-line, could be a standalone novel. It has the feel of a complete story, the kind that makes you want to spend more time with the characters, so it's nice that there is much more story coming.

The book didn’t just remind me of the aforementioned musical; it also reminded me of just about any book by Dick Francis. Mr. Francis' books have lovely romances, danger and someone gets beaten up or threatened in just about every novel. I don't remember any flat out falling in love scenes in previous Mr. King novels, so reading 11/22/1963 was like discovering a new author, with all of the elements I enjoy from the old author.

My reaction to the story felt a little strange. The book is obviously leading up to a momentous event, as evidenced by the title, but it was the little things that got to me. Instead of being horrified and disgusted by Oswald's plans to shoot the president I was horrified and disgusted by his brutality towards his wife. If I had been the one to go back in time I would have had to dispose of Oswald the very first time he hit poor Marina. I was also startled by Mr. King's description of the political climate, which seemed just as polarized as our current state of affairs. Considering how many experts like to say the US is more divided than it has been since the Civil War, I was expecting more unity.

Author Joe Hill (Horns, Heart Shaped Box) made suggestions for the ending of the book, which worked well, especially given that endings are not Mr. King's strong suit. I have no idea what he was originally going to do but the Hill-King ending worked perfectly for me.

I looked for an excerpt but the one that I found is from the latter part of the book, and contains spoilers. Instead I have this animated clip from the audio book, which is much closer to the beginning.

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a highly personal comic from Lucy Knisley called A Light That Never Goes Out. It's about the pain, confusion and hope that can come from a defunct relationship. If you've ever pined over someone this comic will bring up all those old memories and feelings.

http://comics.lucyknisley.com/2013/08/a-light-that-never-goes-out-2/