King, Stephen. 11/22/63.

NY: Scribner, 2011.

Like practically everyone else who reads a lot, I’ve read a number of Stephen King novels. None of them were bad but some appealed to me a good deal more than others. And there have been a few that really got to me, like The Stand. His longer work is capable of approaching the epic in subject and breadth, and this is one of those books. The title alone tells you what it’s all about: The assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a traumatic and era-dividing event in recent U.S. history that also largely defined my own generation. Because this is a fascinating book for a reader of my age.

More specifically, the story is about Jake Epping, present-day high school English teacher in small-town Maine, who has a dying friend who has access to . . . well, a way of traveling back to the past, or at least to a specific point in the past — September 9, 1958. It’s not a machine but simply, possibly, a natural artifact. We learn a bit more about that very late in the book, but not much, and it isn’t important. The point is, if you can go back to 1958, with foreknowledge of the important events in that year’s future, you might be able to change things. In five years, which you will have to survive one day at a time, just like everyone else back then, you can perhaps prevent the president from being killed. And that’s the mission the dying friend drops on Jake. A world in which Kennedy survived would have to be a better place, wouldn’t it?

I was fourteen in 1958, and I was in college in Texas when Kennedy was shot. Moreover, I spent all my adult life as a librarian and archivist in Dallas, and I met and occasionally assisted most of the subsequent historians and investigative journalists who wrote books about the assassination. A great deal has been written on the subject and there’s an intellectual subculture in north Texas that knows far more about it than most people. I watched closely for errors on the author’s part but didn’t catch any — although I would expect a teacher in his thirties to be more aware of the details of the assassination, and also less ignorant of recent social history. Jake has some odd gaps in his general knowledge for someone with a college degree, even if he wasn’t a history major.

So, back to the past. Jake takes a shake-down cruise first, just being cautious. There’s a janitor at his school whose father murdered almost his entirely family back in 1958, when the janitor was ten. Could Jake prevent that from happening? Turns out a practice run was a good idea, as he learns the details of just how this time travel thing works — and discovers that “the past is obdurate. It doesn’t want to be changed.” But awareness of this means you can work around it — mostly.

So he sets off, finally, with a thick notebook of his friend’s detailed notes on Oswald’s movements and those of his associates (this counter-plot has been some time in the brewing), and a useful list of sports events upon which one might lay wagers to provide operating capital. (Turns out it’s not as simple as that, of course.) But he’s going to have to mark time until he gets a little closer to 1963, so he ends up teaching school again in a fictitious small town a county or two south of Dallas. (Think Waxahachie or Midlothian.) And there he meets the new school librarian, Sadie Dunhill, also a recent transplant, who is on the run from a very bad marriage. Naturally, the two gradually fall in love, and that adds considerable complication to Jake’s plans. He doesn’t like having to lie to Sadie and to his friends, but he can hardly tell them he’s from the future, right? But he will come to have great influence on the town and the kids he teaches.

As time passes, Jake takes up residence across the street from Lee and Marina Oswald in west Fort Worth, and later in Oak Cliff. He tracks George de Mohrenschildt (whom I actually met once) and the other Russian expats in Dallas, and taps into Lee’s conversations, and develops considerable sympathy for Marina and her daughter, June. And the past works harder and harder at keeping him from altering anything, often with extensive physical damage to both Sadie and himself. And Dealey Plaza gets closer and closer.

King doesn’t have much good to say about Dallas at the time of Kennedy’s visit. It was certainly a hateful place, he’s got that much right. I didn’t arrive there until 1966 and I remember being greeted even then by the big John Birch Society billboard at one of the downtown exits on Stemmons. (Happily, the city also had a well-educated liberal subculture, if you knew where to find it.) But he paints the little town of Jodie as an idyllic haven in the Norman Rockwell mode, which is unlikely to be the case. Small-town Texas always was and still is the place where racism and fundamentalist intolerance have bred easiest.

Time travel is one of my favorite science fiction themes (King says Jack Finney’s Time and Again is the best book ever written on time travel, and it’s hard to argue with that) and there are various rules regarding cause and effect that serious writers of time travel novels adhere to if they want to be taken seriously. King obviously knows this and he does a good job of making things believable. Jake’s downfall (in terms of keeping his origins secret) is largely because of his tendency to forget himself and sing anachronistic pop tunes and to use very non-1960 slang and idiom. However, the author also, oddly, puts some of these into the mouths of natives of the period. “Don’t Mess With Texas” had its origins in an anti-littering campaign in the late ’80s; its adoption for flag-waving purposes came even later than that. Certainly no one in 1963 had ever heard the phrase. And I really believe “I don’t think so” and “Don’t start” as colloquialisms also date from a much later period.

King has always had a way with the language, though, and he shows it here. Downtown Derry, Maine, is “only marginally more charming than a dead hooker in a church pew.” Describing two kids’ bikes in a front yard, one is leaning properly on its kickstand while the other was “lying on its side like a dead pony.” When Jake is exhausted by lack of sleep, he feels like “a figment of my own imagination.” I especially like “There’s nothing so fascinating as a family argument. I think Tolstoy said that. Or maybe it was Jonathan Franzen.”

As I said, when King gets it right, he can really hit it out of the park. When I got to about the 2/3 point, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to put the book down until I had finished it. That entailed staying up past three in the A.M., but I did it and I don’t regret it. This is a book I can recommend unreservedly.

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