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

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I’ve only read three books by Stephen King. When I was 10 I read The Long Walk, one of his pseudonymous Bachman books. In my early 20s, while trapped on a family vacation, I read The Dark Half, which taught me a word I have never forgotten: psychopomp. Now I have read 11/22/63.

It’s not like I was avoiding King. I just never felt drawn to his stuff. I’m not a big horror reader, and his prose isn’t unmissably lapidary or anything. Judging from other people’s reactions to his work, something important was going on in there, but I could never really feel it. It’s like he was transmitting on a frequency I wasn’t calibrated to receive.

And plus Gilbert Cruz — who edits this blog, or whatever it is — is practically a one-man King bureau, so I got in the habit of just forwarding everything King wrote to him. But with 11/22/63, I took matters into my own hands. I turned vigilante. Like Lee Harvey Oswald.

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I started 11/22/63 because I was curious, just from a technical, writerly point of view, what King was up to. I finished it because I liked it. 11/22/63 isn’t your typical King outing: it’s a time-travel novel about a guy who finds a portal back to 1958 and uses it to try to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy. It’s not a horror novel. It’s hard to say what it is, exactly.

But whatever it is, it’s obviously the work of a master craftsman. You feel safe immediately: sit back, relax, a professional will be handling matters. Everything is in sharp focus: the details are precise, and even minor characters and extras are given distinct individual faces (it’s surprising how few writers bother to do that). The boxes you need a book to check are firmly and methodically checked. By page 5 we’ve got our hero, Jake, and we’re already firmly on his side. He’s a teacher; his wife just left him; he’s nice to a borderline-mentally disabled janitor; he likes John Irving. We like him. Check.

Then there’s another kind of box, which doesn’t get checked: King opts out of the cliches of the genre. No mad scientists, no gleaming time machine, no grandfather paradox, no Tesla coils, nobody coming back from the deep past with a dinosaur for a pet. You’ve read plenty of time-travel stories, so your sensors will be on high alert, but King walks right past them. No alarms go off. Nothing here is stock or off-the-rack: this story is custom-made, one of a kind. The first hint Jake gets that he’s dealing with a time-portal is that a friend of his goes from healthy to wasted-by-cancer in a day. Turns out the friend, Al, just spent four years in the past. He came back because he was dying.

Al owns a diner, which has a pantry, and the pantry is a hole into the past, specifically to September 9, 1958. King doesn’t try to explain this, which is just as well. Jake and Al decide that Jake is going to go back and stop Lee Harvey Oswald.

As it turns out, Jake likes the past. King does too. The root beer was better. The music was better. Life was simpler. Neighborhoods were safer. The best thing about 11/22/63 is King’s warm, precise portrait of the 1950’s, for which he clearly feels a powerful longing. It’s pleasant watching Jake set up his life there. He has a fake identity. Like Biff in Back to the Future Part II, he bets on sporting events that he knows the outcome of. He’s clever and efficient. It’s like watching Robinson Crusoe set up house on his island.

Since the time-hole is permanently set on 1958, and JFK died in 1963, Jake has five years to kill. So he rights a few local historical wrongs in Derry, Maine (where King has set a couple of other novels; according to Professor Cruz, some characters from It make a cameo), then he moves to Texas, the better to surveil Oswald. Jake becomes a teacher in a small town near Dallas, where he finds a tall, lovably gawky librarian named Sadie to fall in love with.

We have a lot of time to kill too. The big question, of course, is will-he-won’t-he stop Oswald, but it’s a long haul to the fateful day, and the wires go slack from time to time. Much of the book’s tension comes from the fact that the past doesn’t like being changed. It throws up barriers to keep Jake from changing the timestream—a fallen tree, a sudden illness, a stalled car—and the more major the change, the more serious the barriers. (There’s a whiff of Final Destination in 11/22/63.) But Jake spends a lot of time noodling around inspiring his students and flirting with Sadie, too. The book wanders in the middle, from genre to genre, from thriller to romance to mystery to period piece to Friday Night Lights.

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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