Theories concerning the assignation of President John F. Kennedy seemed to hit a watershed moment when I was in college–or maybe it just seemed that way because for one semester for an English literature class, we read Don DeLillo’s Libra as well as re-visiting Oliver Stone’s JKF. Toss in the Quantum Leap episode, “Lee Harvey Oswald” and you’ve got a lot of conspiracy theories running competing for time and attention.
So when I heard that Stephen King’s latest novel was going to center around the assignation of JFK, I have to admit a part of my deep down inside groaned a bit. Oh sure, enough time has passed since that time of feeling like I was immersed in JFK theories and I still enjoy the JFK parody on Seinfeld‘s classic episode, “The Boyfriend,” but I wasn’t quite sure I was ready to leap back into more JFK conspiracy theories and stories.
Eight hundred or so pages later, I realize that I should probably have a bit more faith in Stephen King. Yes, 11/22/63 concerns the JFK assignation, but King has crafted something more in his latest novel. Continuing his career renaissance, King has crafted a time travel novel that is fascinating, compelling and human. Divorced school teacher Jake Epping is presented with an opportunity to travel back in time and to change history. A friend shows him a one-way door to the past that Jake can travel from current day back to 1957. King wisely limits his time travel conceit to travel to only one point in history at each side of the corridor. And changes must be made each time you travel back in time or else history “resets.” No time for sight-seeing along the way and having Jake arrive each time at a point several years from when the assignation occurs means there’s no use of re-dos or going back to correct previous mistakes without dramatic personal consequences for the traveler in question.
At first, Jake makes a small change to history, helping a student whose father abused him and destroyed his family. During this trip, Jake learns how hard history will work to ensure that changes aren’t made on any major scale (the first traveler uses the corridor to purchase hamburger at 50’s prices for his diner before deciding to try and stop the JFK assignation). Jake makes the change and then decides it’s time to go all in and make some major history altering changes.
At close to 900 pages, 11/22/63 is quite a tome for Stephen King. Jake’s time in the past is detailed as he settles in, creating a life for himself as he waits and readies for that fateful day. In many ways, the details of Jake’s creating a life in the past, falling in love with a divorced fellow teacher and his small town life is just as compelling, if not more so, than the plot about trying to see if Oswald worked alone or if there was a larger conspiracy. And while you could argue that the entire establishing a life is a huge side step for the novel, I wouldn’t trade one bit of it to make this novel any shorter.
King knows what’s he’s doing with this enjoyable, compelling and compulsively readable novel. Don’t worry about a page count or getting lost in the subplots. It’s all worth it in the end. One of the most enjoyable novels I read in 2011.