As I write this, it is the 48th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and I have just finished reading Stephen King’s new novel about a man who goes back in time to try to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from firing the three bullets that would change the world, 11/22/63 (Scribner). What a ride!
When high school teacher Jake Epping is convinced by a dying friend to step into the past, he has no idea how much he’ll actually change it — and what those changes will mean to the rest of the world.
It’s no secret that King knows how to weave a tight story in short form, and of course many of his novels are classics. But some of his books are, well, daunting. There was The Stand, as brilliant as it was long. It, which exhausted me before I finished. Under the Dome, 2009’s examination of the population of a small town when a strange dome is lowered over it, trapping them inside. And now there’s 11-22-63, which, at almost 900 pages, approaches epic status.
So what does happen when a guy steps back in time from 2011 to 1958, with the goal of stopping Kennedy’s assassination? For King, it involves five years of life beforehand, proving Oswald’s lone-gunman status. But five years is long enough; Jake can’t just sit around, marveling at how life was simpler then, with none of the modern conveniences. No, what Jake must do is build a life — to pass the time and to understand it. And it’s that life, really, and how it shuffles with his weaving himself into Oswald’s life, that this book is really about.
The frame is the events of Dealey Plaza — but the picture inside that frame is something quite different. This is an adult novel that speaks of real relationships, real love; the dialogue and cultural touchstones feel like vintage King. No one is better at zeroing in on the detail that gets us to ooh and aah and maybe even shed a tear as we remember. But this goes beyond it. Far beyond.What’s so wonderful is King’s take on what happens when changes are made in the past. An early subplot has Jake insinuating himself into the family of a man he knows in 2011, making changes to that man’s tragic story. It’s a test, of course, Jake’s dry run: What will happen when he makes changes in the past… and how will they affect the future?
The JFK aspect of this book, for all the hype, is the smallest part of it. Is it cool to see what happens? Well, yeah. We’re all suckers for all things JFK. Does Jake get to stop Oswald? I’m not telling. But this book isn’t really about Oswald and JFK; it’s about a man who agrees to undertake a world-changing mission, then comes to understand how that mission changes his own life — and possibly the lives of everyone on the planet — and possibly the existence of the planet itself.
11-22-63 is a surprisingly layered, complex story about the small part we all play in this thing called life. It’s also about the idea that each part may not be as small as we think it is; each one may, in the end, be a tiny, though essential, factor in the future we all share. In a way, it’s that tale about the butterfly that flaps its wings in Iowa and causes a tidal wave in Japan (there are countless variations) — except each one of us, in turns out, is a butterfly. ◊