In Stephen King’s Latest, Trying to Stop Lee Harvey Oswald

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Only rarely does King go to his horror-writer chops, but those are the moments when I really felt the master’s presence—King is a diligent journeyman when it comes to staging a romance, but when he does horror the book snaps into hi-res. When Jake emerges from the time-hole, or whatever it is, he’s immediately greeted by a drunken bum who seems to realize that there’s something different about Jake—he doesn’t belong there. The bum carries a yellow card on his hat, and Al has named him the Yellow Card Man, though sometimes his card changes color for reasons that are obscure. The Yellow Card Man calls Jake “Jimla,” a nonsense word that recurs in odd places throughout Jake’s story, and slowly but surely fills with dreadful meaning. The Yellow Card Man is a surreal presence who hovers over much of the book, reminding us that, even as he lives out a 1950s idyll, Jake is messing with forces beyond his understanding. Maybe it’s dangerously self-indulgent to think that one man can rewrite history to his specifications. Maybe he’s not so different from Oswald.

Given the discipline and the cold, cutting skill with which King handles the few horror elements of 11/22/63, it’s surprising how sentimental he’s willing to go. He actually talks us through a high-school performance of Of Mice and Men—starring a protégé of Jake’s, a football-player-turned actor—in something close to real-time. The audience collapses in sobs; I didn’t. When a cheerleader receives a disfiguring scar in a car accident, the whole school pitches in and puts on a revue to pay for plastic surgery. Sadie herself, as a lonely small-town librarian, is at least half-cliché.

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King also curses Sadie with a crazy and abusive but not very interesting ex-husband, the better to obtain our sympathy for her. I don’t mind being manipulated — as a reader, that’s what I’m here for — but gently does it. Just as Jake feels the fell hand of history pushing him this way and that, I felt the hand of King rubbing my nose in Sadie’s misery, demanding that I feel sorry for her. He’s overplaying a winning hand. I already liked Sadie! I didn’t need to pity her too. (Because of said ex’s craziness, by the way, Sadie is still a virgin when Jake meets her. All for Jake!)

But I stuck with 11/22/63. I had to: it was simply too pleasant living in King’s vision of the past, where the entire world is suffused in a golden glow arising from the absence of cell phones and e-mail and homeland security and all our other modern miracles. And I was too interested in the grand loop of King’s time-travel conceit. It’s rare that time travelers have really good, specific reasons to go back in time, beyond averting a chrono-flux vortex or whatever. But Jake does, and I cared about him. And I wanted to know: what kind of twist does an 800-page time-travel novel lead up to?

I found out. The build-up is better than the payoff, as it almost always is. But there’s a lot to be said for a good build-up, and it’s not a cop-out. 11/22/63 asks a good question: what if this world—as cruel, tragic and horrifying as it is—really is the best of all possible worlds?  If there’s no good answer to that question, it’s not King’s fault.

So that’s three down, out of King’s 50-novel oeuvre, and I believe I’ll make it four. What should I read next?

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