11/22/63

Stephen King has something for everybody. For a highbrow critic like Harold Bloom, who condemned King "an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis," he offers a punching bag. For a certain type of highbrow reader, he offers a handy way to establish populist bona fides. When Nabokov wrote, in an essay on Jekyll and Hyde, "I am not one of those college professors who coyly boasts [sic] of enjoying detective stories," he had this type in mind. For everyone else, King offers escape, or even respite, from reality. Pure entertainment. The sales figures bear this out. The cinematic adaptations needn't even be named. Chances are you've had nightmares about one or two or most of them.

 

I state the obvious here because, never having read King before his new 11/22/63, I had every expectation of falling into one of these camps. My ignorance isn't intended as a handy way to establish elitist bona fides. I'd always wanted to read King. As a kid I got a few pages into It before my mom confiscated it, having chanced to see the sentence, "The fish had eaten this unfortunate gentleman's eyes, three of his fingers, his penis, and most of his left foot." Later, my grandma confiscated Gerald's Game before I even started it. It was, needless to say, her own copy.

 

11/22/63 isn't a horror story, though part of it is set in the same clown-haunted Derry, Maine, in which It opens. King's much-bruited "sense of place," his Maine, may be studied by the dumbed-down academe of the future the way Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha is now, to the dismay of Harold Bloom's corpse. In 11/22/63 the sense of place is replaced with a sense of time. The novel is about Jake Epping, a high school English teacher who travels into the past to prevent the Kennedy assassination. Its subject, and in certain important ways its main character, is time itself. It reveals King as an almost willfully mediocre prose stylist, a great storyteller, and -- here's the complicating surprise -- a thoughtful navigator of the questions a curious normal person would have about time, causality, memory, and love.

 

In other words, King is not Borges. He is your favorite high school English teacher, the one who married once, never left town, devoted his life to kids, and inquired as deeply as his mental equipment permitted into things that matter.

 

Jake Epping would be a failure by big-city standards, which is why he's so appealing. His wife's alcoholism destroyed his marriage (alcoholic King knows whereof he speaks), and the book opens with him slogging, like the Atlantic's Professor X, through adult-education comp themes. One of his students writes, painfully and in emblematically crappy prose, of the tragedy that destroyed his family and left him crippled. Soon thereafter, Al, a diner owner of Jake's acquaintance, suddenly dying of lung cancer, reveals that his pantry is a portal to 1958. Al, who has been using said portal to buy cheap hamburger meat, beseeches Jake to perform a nobler task that occurred to him too late: Save Kennedy in 1963. But Jake, the earnest Everyman, finds he wants to save everyone.

 

King goes easy on the SF time-travel minutia. He tells the reader only that every time the traveler passes through the portal, his previous emendations to the space-time continuum receive a cosmic stet. If Jake fails on his first try, he may try, try again. Only after a while does he realize things don't go entirely back to normal. He begins to notice odd coincidences or resonances -- he refers to them as the past "harmonizing" with itself -- that say something's not quite right. There are jarring echoes of words and situations; people in the past who resemble, Wizard of Oz-style, people in the present; the déjà vu that makes all of us go a little mad sometimes. In what I suspect is characteristic King fashion, "not quite right" turns out to mean "terrifying."

 

I knocked King's prose. All I mean is that it's breezy. His figures of speech invoke pop culture. His humor is observational in a folksy way, usually while pretending to impatience with itself. He is probably capable of other registers, but wise enough to know that his target audience -- from the wind-ruddied denizens of Vacationland to the regular folk of the greater U.S. -- doesn't want them. More power to him. The trouble for a reviewer is that the tail meat, the twists and turns of his densely plotted and intensively researched story, must be held in reserve. Here's a teaser: Jake Epping takes the name George Amberson. He stays flush by abusing his knowledge of sporting events; this plot leads to tragedy. He trails Lee Harvey Oswald and peripheral players like the best of G-men, even employing historically accurate surveillance equipment, so that he can be certain the man he has to kill is actually the guilty party. And he falls in love with a lindy-hopping high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill -- but whether he saves her is, in the end, an open question.

 

It's strange to say a middling stylist like King is a national treasure, but there it is. Even the abysmal H. P. Lovecraft, one of King's touchstones, enjoys pride of place in the Library of America. What makes King great isn't his writing, but his knack for prodding the average person to wonder about time, fate, theodicy, and humanity (for King finds the humanity even in an assassin) in a useful, albeit rudimentary, way. The past is obdurate, the book tells us again and again. It doesn't want to be changed, and will fight violently any attempt to change it. King's imagination may be weirder and woolier than many of his contemporaries, but the themes explored in 11/22/63 -- loss, nostalgia, regret, and wishful thinking -- belong to all of us.

Comments
by mlslwke on ‎11-25-2011 08:31 AM

I read King religiously as a teenager. As an adult I have found that I never read King. I had no intensions of reading this one either, until I read this review.

by DyannaGA on ‎11-25-2011 08:45 AM

Don't pass this one by if you feel its just another horror novel.  Very entertaining!

by Mitch563 on ‎12-19-2011 09:03 PM

Completely and truly one of King's very best books!  What "The Shining" is to his horror work, this book is to his character study field of work.  I cannot recommend it enough!

by socratez ‎01-10-2012 09:18 AM - edited ‎01-10-2012 04:30 PM

Stephen King is the Obdurate Past or 842 page warren commissionish Tome

 

Stephen King’s main character, George Amberson, goes back into the past, and finds it obdurate; somewhat resistant to change. Then when he does change it, by killing Lee Oswald (so John Kennedy lives), George Wallace becomes President and the future turns out for the worse.

 

Stephen King convicts Oswald throughout his whole novel; saying he does not like the way he looks, that he is humor-less, he’s heartless, and evil. Then King puts Oswald to death, in an overly dramatized scene, by blowing his head off. I guess this may make Steven King feel better, but, the thing is, the evidence to pin the killings of Kennedy, and Tippet, on Oswald is just not there. King references the principle of Occam’s razor; the simplest explanation is usually the right one; ergo Oswald is guilty. Well, somehow I do not think that applies where the CIA is involved; as Oswald was clearly an associate. If Stephen King does not believe that, I have a three word response: Judyth Vary Baker. Mrs. Baker’s book Me & Lee clearly establishes Lee Oswald as FBI, CIA, ONI and Mafia connected, and also as a respectable human being; as apposed to ‘the elephant man’. For those still not convinced, I quote former HSCA investigator Gaeton Fonzi (from his book The Last Investigation),

“There is…preponderance of evidence that indicates Lee Harvey Oswald had an association with a U.S. Government agency, perhaps more than one, but undoubtedly with the Central Intelligence Agency”.

 

King describes Bonnie Ray Williams (TSBD employee) as a guy who cannot see what’s right in front of him; belongs in his fictional town of ‘Derry’. The other guy who belongs inDerryis Stephen King, himself, for not recognizing the blatant John Kennedy assassination conspiracy.

 

Then King shows the future as being worse, had John Kennedy lived, and has George Wallace becoming President. Well, these are two eventualities that, to me, are unbelievable, even in the wildest of fictions. So I found these scenarios both ignorant and tasteless. King’s novel isAmerica’s obdurate past by endorsing the lone nut / magic bullet theories. The average American, not having the time to research the Kennedy assassination, or read a tome like King’s, most likely will incorrectly assume that King’s age and stature as a novelist, and the imposing size of this tome (novel), denote a certain degree of knowledge and intelligence. Stephen King is the obdurate past. The fact that this novel will be made into a movie, endorsing the CIA position, is an obdurate reality, an iron curtain, that must to be torn down, by all thinking, common sense, American’s.

 

I can not believe that Stephen King has really read that many books on the assassination; he's such defender of the lone nut / magic bullet theory. I think he is in the .01 percent that still believes that ridiculous hogwash; King, and Gerald Posner (lone nut theorist, and on the take from the CIA), are the real lone nuts. King's one helluva a writer, but, his wife, Tabitha (a conspiracy theorist), is the brains in the family. Stephen King has bought into the ‘lone-nut’ theory, put forward by our elected officials, hook-line-and-sinker. On the last page (of his Afterword), Stephen King says, “Mostly, however, I stuck to the truth.”

All I have to say to that is, “WHAT A CROCK OF  XXXX!”.

The shot at General Walker was from a 30.06 caliber bullet that was changed to a 6.5 caliber, by the Warren Commission, to match a Mannlicher-Carcano; like the one supposedly used by Oswald to shoot the President. Even General Walker protested that the bullet found in his house was not from a 6.5 mm weapon.

 

The missed shot at General Walker, the backyard photos, and all the CIA impersonations of Oswald, etc, were nothing but shabby attempts to frame the patsy; that history will never buy into; it's all disintegrating by the day.

 

In reference to King’s two word response: Karen Carlin, in his Afterword; who’s being $25 short on her rent was Jack Ruby’s reason for being, at the Western Union Office, by the Dallas Police Department basement (where Ruby shot Oswald), I have this two word response: CONVENIENT ALIBI. King even says Ruby had a gun on him at the press conference on Saturday, 11/23, at the Dallas PD, but balked on killing Oswald. So, why is it such a stretch for King to believe that Ruby’s shooting of Oswald was premeditated on Sunday, 11/24? Jack Ruby was Chicago mafia since the 1940’s when he first worked on a political campaign with, the infamous, RICHARD NIXON. Lining up convenient alibis for Jack Ruby was like lining strippers for his nightclub: a piece of cake.

 

To be fair, if I set the milestones of implausibility and insanity aside, I did enjoy reading this novel, somewhat. King’s characterizations of Marguerite Oswald and FBI agent Hosty were hilarious. The love story of George Amberson and Sadie Dunhill is both touching and heart rending. As Doc Ricketts, naturalist of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, would have said (with his green, shrunken, Chinese head up on the shelf; in a jar of formaldehyde), ‘it was mildly delightful’. The use of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men was touching, but, we have got John Steinbeck to thank for that...I also enjoyed King’s references to the dance and rock culture of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

 

But, on the whole, I was reminded of that big book of fiction, by the warren commission, or Steinbeck’s character, Lenny, in Of Mice and Men. So, as George did with Lenny, I think I'll gently take this big ole book down by the river and put it out of its misery...

 

...BANG!!!!!!

 

April 17: "In less than three years, both GM and Chrysler would be bankrupt, and a resurgent Ford would wow Wall Street..."

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