In four weeks it will have been a half a century since the assassination of President Kennedy. Not so much coincidentally, I had planned to read Stephen King’s 11/22/63 this fall, so I carved some time out my regular reading schedule and read it over the last two weeks, finishing it up this morning. I can’t say it’s a Great Book with capital letters, but I certainly thought it worth a mention here in the online journal of my reading adventure. I could have done with less of the type of language I associate with the junior-high boys’ locker room, and the final crisis disappointed me a bit (it seems time travel causes problems in the fabric of reality, not exactly a startlingly innovative idea worth hiding for eight hundred pages). But I thoroughly enjoyed the ride back and forth between the Teensies and the Sixties and heartily approve of the morality of the sacrifice hero Jake Epping has to make in the end.
The book changes tone several times. I might even say it changes from genre to genre as it unfolds. Starting as a character study (“I’ve never been a crying man”), it shifts rather soon to a fantasy when Jake’s friend Al shows him a time portal to 1958. Their conversations and Jake’s first experiments with the portal bring out the reader’s inner geek, as we try to figure out how the portal works and look for clues as to whether each new trip truly resets all the changes the time traveler has made.
Then in one long section called “Living in the Past,” Jake realizes that he isn’t just on a five-year mission to save John Kennedy; he has changed residence and now thinks of the Age of Tail Fins as home. Here are the book’s best moments. The mediocre football player who finds out he can act. The librarian who has an abusive husband but doesn’t know it. The drive-in theater. Service-station attendants in uniforms. King says he especially enjoyed recalling the sounds and smells of the times, and they’re all here in vivid force: the coins in the pay phone, the fumes of a pre-EPA diesel bus, and so on.
Then Oswald returns from Russia, and the novel transforms into a detective thriller that begins with Jake trying to buy surveillance equipment made in the days before microchips and ends with a history-defying race up the stairs of the Texas School Book Depository Building. Here, King has to make a decision, has to come down on one side or the other. He doesn’t have anything to say about the grassy knoll. But he does show us Lee Harvey Oswald alone in the southeast corner of the sixth floor with a rifle in his hands. And stopping him really does save the President’s life. Oh, come on. I’m not giving anything away. Even I knew that the crazy scheme would achieve its primary goal. But a hero who saves the life of a President standing with him on the ever-sliding frontier of the unknown future is one thing. Going back in time to save the life of a President who has already been killed in one thread of reality is another thing entirely. So the bow isn’t tied too terribly neatly at this point, and the book finally has to become the supernatural thriller that we expect from Stephen King.
Speaking of coming down on one side or the other, I’ll come down myself and land right next to King. Reading the novel got me also reading and watching historical (and pseudo-historical) accounts of the tragedy. I’m thoroughly convinced that Kennedy and Connally were hit with the same bullet just before Zapruder frame 224, and that the fatal shot also came from behind. Johnson told the Warren Commission to quash all conspiracy theories, supposedly to allay the public’s fears. I think the Commission then did exactly the wrong thing and, instead of pursuing the idea that is to be disproven as good scientists do, fudged and inflated the case for the lone gunman. Naturally this strategy made it look as though they were hiding the truth and so ended up fostering the conspiracy theories they were meant to dispel. Perhaps someone could write a story about a time traveler who goes back and tries to get the Warren Commission to do the job right.