11.22.63 by Stephen King (2011) 740 p.
Everybody knows that Stephen King used to be a much better writer than he is today. He started to come apart in the 1990s, and his flagging talent exploded when he was hit by a car in 1999. I lamented this many times while reading his Dark Tower series, which started out so well in the 1980s and ended so, so badly in 2004. But is it not possible that he could return to form? I’ve heard distant whispers of good things about Full Dark, No Stars, The Wind Through The Keyhole and 11.22.63 – the latter even being named one of the New York Times‘ 10 Best Books of 2011. I chose to read 11.22.63 for the same reason I read any King novel – it had an intriguing premise. King may be pegged as a horror writer, but I’ve never once been scared by anything he’s written. I read him because he’s a decent storyteller who comes up with some interesting ideas, which I suppose, on a theoretical level, are scary (i.e. The Stand or Firestarter).
11.22.63, which keen students of history will notice is the date of JFK’s assassination, is the tale of recently divorced high school English teacher Jake Epping, whose buddy Al owns a diner in the small Maine town of Lisbon Falls. Late one night, Al calls Jake over to the diner unexpectedly, and Jake is astonished to see that he appears to have aged by a matter of years, apparently overnight. Al lets Jake in on a secret. In the storeroom of his diner there’s a portal. On one side you’re standing among brooms and mops and stacks of cans in 2011; on the other side, you’re standing in bright sunlight next to a textile mill, on September 9, 1958.
The time portal is not explained, of course, and nor should it be. Al is almost as clueless as Jake, though he has discovered a few rules. No matter how long you spend in the past, whether it’s a few minutes or a few years, you will always return two minutes after you left. Anything you do can and will change the future, as Al discovered by carving his initials into a tree – but every time you go back, it’s a reset, and anything you accomplished on previous trips has been erased.
Having mostly used the portal for short excursions to purchase beef at 1958 prices, Al has recently come back from a much longer trip, and only because he was dying of cancer. Coughing blood into maxi pads, he explains to Jake that he’d been trying to change the future for the better – specifically, trying to stop JFK’s assassination. This, Al conjectures, could then stop the Vietnam War, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the race riots of the ’60s and ’70s, and just generally make the world a better place. (A dubious proposition, but never mind – it doesn’t matter that we believe it, only that Jake and Al do.) He failed in his mission because JFK won’t be assassinated until 1963, and as the date approached, Al began to die of cancer. He has returned to the future to entrust the mission to Jake.
Naturally, Jake accepts, but he makes a test run first. One of his adult night-class students is a crippled, brain damaged janitor who suffered his injuries on Halloween, 1958, when his father murdered his family with a hammer. Jake goes back through the portal with the intention of sticking around for two months and stopping those murders from happening.
This segment, which takes up the first 200 pages of the book, is tight. It’s a dress rehearsal for both Jake and the reader, setting up a kind of tension which couldn’t exist in any other kind of story – time goes by slowly, but everything boils down to a single moment, and being armed with some foreknowledge doesn’t make Jake invincible or infallible. The past, in fact, tries to present itself from being changed, with all kinds of minor mishaps and coincidences blocking Jake from his course of action – reminiscent of Final Destination, and a reminder that Jake and Al are messing with forces beyond their control or comprehension.
I won’t spoil how the mission to save the janitor’s family goes, but suffice to say that Jake soon travels into the past for a much longer stay and a much larger mission. JFK was assassinated in 1963; the portal sends Jake to 1958. So he has some time to kill, which he intends to spend closely tracking and observing Lee Harvey Oswald to make sure the conspiracy theories were wrong. The last thing he wants is to murder an innocent man and have JFK get capped from the Grassy Knoll anyway. So 11.22.63 is a double mystery, about whether or not Oswald was truly JFK’s assassin, and whether or not Jake will be able to stop him as time rolls excruciatingly slowly towards the fateful date. (It’s not exactly a one-chance shot, since Jake could always return to 2011 and then return to a reset 1958 and try again; but five years is an awfully long time, and Jake himself continues to age.)
It’s in this middle section that the novel sags, and you can see the King-ian cogs and wheels grinding away in their tedious, cliched fashion. Jake doesn’t much like Dallas, so he spends the late 50s and early 60s living in the Texan town of Jodie: a perfect white-picket 1950s small town populated with decent, friendly American folk, where Jake takes a job at the local high school and falls in love with Sadie, the school librarian. 11.22.63 was clearly written in part so that King could indulge in some reminiscing about the good old days of Studebakers and lindy hops and high school football, but the Jodie chapters are the ones where the story is pretty much stripped away, leaving us with nothing but an exercise in nostalgia – which I found tedious, given that I was born in 1988 and King is not particularly adept at capturing another era anyway. (Not bad, but not great either).
This was part of what made 11.22.63 a novel that is, like many of King’s longer works, desperately in need of an editor. It’s a fairly major edit to suggest, since Jodie comprises the majority of the book and Sadie ends up being crucial to the ending, but surely small-town loveliness has no place (even as juxtaposition) when coming from a horror writer in a novel about murdering a sociopath to change the future? Surely it would have been better for Jake to live alone, depressed and maybe alcoholic, in a shitty apartment in the 1960s, a pair of headphones over his ears every night, listening to endless recordings from the Oswald family next door, plotting to kill a man who might be innocent? Better for the tone of the novel, certainly, and also conveniently slicing about 300 pages out of it.
Anyway, I stuck through the novel’s doldrums because I wanted to see how it would end up, and as November 1963 approaches, King fortunately picks up the pace again. The final third of the book is gripping stuff, as strong as the first third. As usual, though, King manages to pull it out of the fire and fuck it up at the last minute. The time portal, which so patently didn’t need to be explained, is expanded upon, and the consequences of Jake’s actions are partly taken out of his hands, becoming less logical and more… universal, for want of a better word.
One of the things that irritated me about the end of the Dark Tower series was King’s obsession with fate or destiny or cosmology or whatever you want to call it. By the time the last two books rolled around it almost had me tearing my hair out. It’s not as bad as it was then – maybe the further he gets from his car crash, the more he manages to shake it – but there is a strain of it, as Jake runs into connected characters and similar situations, referring to them with what becomes an irritating repeated mantra: “the past harmonises.” (Running a close second is the cheesy “dancing is life.”) As I said, it’s not as bad as it has been in his other books, but King still demonstrates a bothersome interest in removing his characters from logical sequences of cause-and-effect (fairly vital in a time travel novel) and have them skirt alongside the Dark Tower zone, where the characters have no free will and what they do doesn’t actually matter – everything comes down to fate and destiny and mystical forces beyond our control. Boring.
11.22.63 is an ambitious but flawed and bloated novel, and I knew as I was reading it that my final judgement would rest on how well it ended. On that count, unfortunately, it stumbles. Since it stumbles so often even before it gets to the ending, I can’t quite recommend it unless you’re a King fan or find the premise really interesting. It certainly has good moments and gripping passages, some lasting for hundreds of pages, but it’s still the kind of book that I wish I could take a crack at editing, because it’s frustratingly capable of being much better. King can still come up with fantastic ideas, but he’s not the storyteller he used to be.