11/22/63 by Stephen King
I’m planning to write a review of every book I read in 2013, rather than just an end of year list. This is the first.
11/22/63 is the first Stephen King book I’ve read. I’ve been meaning to read The Dark Tower series for a while, but have always found a fantasy series I want to read first, and most of his other stuff I’ve already seen the film of (philistine). I read this because it ticked a couple of boxes. It’s about the assassination of JFK (that’s what the date in the title refers to – 22nd November 1963), which is an interesting subject, and it’s about time travel which is inherently fun. Also, it got very good reviews. “Stephen King’s best novel in a decade” was one bit of praise I read.
The basic premise of the book is that a schoolteacher called Jake Epping who is told of a magic staircase (I’m only partly joking) that will take him back to Maine in 1958. The plan then is for Epping to hang around for four years, make certain that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman killing JFK, and stop him from doing it. The logic there is that JFK was anti-Vietnam and pro-civil rights (while his successor LBJ was the opposite), so a world without JFK’s assassination would mean no Vietnam War, and no assassination of Martin Luther King. So Epping can stop the assassination and then hightail it back up the magic staircase to the present day and enjoy the better world that foiling the assassination would inevitably lead to.
It’s an excellent idea for a plot (if a bit similar to an episode of Red Dwarf – sadly it doesn’t lead to JFK assassinating himself, like that did). There’s a tonne of interesting areas that can be explored: what sort of man was Lee Harvey Oswald? Was he a lone gunman? Was it just him, or was there a conspiracy, and if so, who was involved? What sort of President would JFK have been if he’d survived? How would a full eight years of JFK have changed America? And how does changing the past change the future? Can you even do it?
Sadly, King goes down an entirely different, far less interesting route. Some of those things are briefly explored, but only briefly. It’s mainly about the main character killing time in mid-20th century America and deciding that he likes his life there much more than he likes his life in the present day.
Which is fair enough, except that you never really get the impression that he was particularly unhappy in the present day, or that he’s wildly happy in the past. He was a teacher in the present. He becomes a teacher in the past and that makes him happy. He used to be happily married in the present, then got divorced. In the past, he meets a nice girl, and that makes him happy.
He basically prefers the past because he’s got both a job he likes and a girl he likes, whereas in the present he only had the job. There’s nothing really about mid-20th century America that adds to that happiness, and nothing really about the present day which seems to annoy him. He just states every so often that things are cheap in the past, and he doesn’t really miss his mobile phone. He doesn’t seem to have many friends in the present, but he doesn’t seem to make many friends in the past. Basically, I think the book is supposed to be about the character arc of Jake Epping coming to think the past is better than the future, but there’s no arc to it, and the only thing he really prefers about the past is the girl.
Early on, he does actually aim to do things related to the time travel plot (such as stopping the family of the present-day janitor at his school being murdered in late 1958), but that all gets squared away pretty quickly, and any semblance of action basically takes a back seat to just killing time for the next four years. He watches Oswald (but never really investigates him much), works, meets a girl, and that’s about it. For about 500 pages.
I am being pretty critical here. It’s a decent enough book, most of the characters are fine. It just feels like a missed opportunity. It’s a great idea, but it feels like it missed its own point. If you’re going to write an 800 page book about going back in time to prevent the JFK assassination, the interesting part of the subject is the “JFK assassination” bit, not the “boy, things were better in the past” bit. A thriller about Epping investigating and attempting to stop the assassination, seeing the impact on the future, learning more about Oswald and JFK and so on, would (I think) have been a very interesting read. An overly long paean to the past, with a pretty average love story: not so much.
All that being said, at times, it is a good read. In particular, the more action based scenes of him trying to change the past are good fun. But the parts that aren’t about that are either dull or long (and often both). There’s a twist, but it’s one that you can see coming from basically the start (I think it’s actually spelt out as a good possibility quite early on), and it’s not even as good as the entirely random one I thought of within the first couple of chapters.
Basically it’s alright. Good bits, dull bits. A bit too long, but worth reading if you’ve got enough time to read an 800 page book that is basically average. I’d give it three stars, if I knew how to put stars in.
Read if you like: Americana I guess, or the 50s and 60s. Or just long books that aren’t particularly great.
Don’t read if you like: fast paced books, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Next up: The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson.