“I thought with some unease about the so-called butterfly effect. I thought I was watching that butterfly unfurl its wings right before my eyes. We were changing the world. Only in small ways – infinitesimal ways – but yes, we were changing it.”
11/22/63, by Stephen King
Scribner, November 2011
science fiction suspense
849 pages (hardcover)
It begins with Jake Epping, a thirty-five-year-old English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching GED classes. He asks his students to write about an event that changed their lives, and one essay blows him away – a gruesome, harrowing story about the night more than fifty years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a sledgehammer.
Reading the essay is a watershed moment for Jake, his life – like Harry’s, like America’s in 1963 – turning on a dime. Not much later his friend Al, who owns the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to the past, a particular day in 1958. And Al enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession – to prevent the Kennedy assassination.
So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson, in a different world of Ike and JFK and Elvis, of big American cars and sock hops and cigarette smoke everywhere. From the dank little city of Derry, Maine (where there’s Dunning business to conduct), to the warmhearted small town of Jodie, Texas, where Jake falls dangerously in love, every turn is leading eventually, of course, to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and to Dallas, where the past becomes heart-stoppingly suspenseful, and where history might not be history anymore.
Time-travel has never been so believable. Or so terrifying.
Wow. Just… wow.
11/22/63 is my last review from 2014 that I hadn’t gotten around to finishing before all the end-of-the-year craziness. This was also one of my favorite books I read last year… maybe even the favorite, if I were ever forced to pick just one (though I guess we’ll never know for sure, since such a thing is impossible). It was such a captivating story, and I was all the more pleased by it because I wasn’t expecting to be sucked in the way I was. I definitely wasn’t planning to finish such a chunkster in just three days. But I couldn’t put it down.
I’d heard time and time again about how this isn’t your typical Stephen King novel, so I don’t know if this was his intent or not… but once the premise was explained, I was seriously creeped out. Time travel is such a fertile area, and it’s always intriguing to see how authors deal with it. There’s always some degree of risk – paradoxes, butterfly effect, and all that – but in the scenario King sets up, it just seems so easy for everything to unravel.
To be fair, “unraveling” in this case means going back to how things actually happened in the first place, which is maybe not such a bad thing. But when the whole idea of the story is to go back and change something, returning to the way things are “supposed to be” feels strangely ominous. And the implications of changing or not changing events only become more intense as the story progresses.
I’m still trying to work out how I felt about the ending. I wouldn’t say it’s one of King’s famous weak endings. I thought it worked. I’m just not sure that something else might not have worked better… and that’s really all I can say about it.
I’ve realized over the years that I do love the way King puts his stories together. The key – the thing that makes so much of his work hit or miss for me – is that I need to be invested in the characters in order to appreciate it. When I can connect to his characters, I will follow them through anything, whether it seems relevant to the story or not. But when I can’t, his books, even the shorter ones, just seem to drag.
This one never dragged.
Does 11/22/63 sound like something you’d pick up? Are you a fan of Stephen King? (And, if not, have you ever tried any of his non-horror?)