Sunday, May 20, 2012

11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011)

Oh hey, remember me? I didn't die or forget how to read or anything, I just took on this 950 page book at the same time that I was buying a house and trying to read two other books. Not recommended for speedy reading times.

In fact, I think my extra slow reading schedule might have done Stephen King's 11/22/63 (2011) a disservice, because even though it is a very readable and exciting book, I was really really tired of reading it by the time I came to the end.

Like many people I was a big fan of King's horror novels when I was in junior high, but hadn't picked him up again as an adult. In fact, King hasn't really been on my radar at all for about 15 years, so I was surprised and intrigued when I heard that he had come out with a super long time-travel / alternate history tome. I figured I'd give it a shot.

Our narrator, Jake, who lives in present-day Maine, is a recently divorced high school teacher in his early 30s. One day his friend Al, who runs the local diner, reveals something odd to Jake. He has a portal in the back of his restaurant that spits you out into September 9, 1958 at 11:58 a.m. You can do whatever you want and stay as long as you want, and when you walk back through the portal only 2 minutes will have passed in the present day. You can change things in the past, but the next time you go back through the portal, everything will be reset (so if you want your changes to stick, you can never go through the portal again).

Al had been using the portal for years to buy meat at 1958 prices and sell it in his 2011 diner. When that got old he tried changing a few little things like stopping a hunting accident that paralyzed a young girl. Eventually he worked himself up into the idea that he could stop Oswald from shooting JFK, thereby keeping the US out of Vietnam and saving the world a lot of pain and suffering (I'd make the argument that all the ills of the world were not caused by the Kennedy assassination, but then I guess we wouldn't have much of a book). But Al gets cancer and can't fulfill his mission. He gives all his notes and ideas to Jake and convinces him to take over the project.

Jake starts small: the family of the janitor at his high school were all murdered by his drunken father when he was a kid. He decides to save them and then see how the present reacts. After he gets a little past-changing experience under his belt he moves down to Texas for the main course.

While the first time travel chunk was zippy and exciting, King gets a little bogged down once he gets to Texas. There is a long romantic / everyday life interlude in a small town outside of Dallas while he waits for Oswald to act, that definitely could have been tightened up a little. And King is so Maine-y that he doesn't really seem to like or understand Texas at all. And while he is definitely trying to be sensitive, race and gender issues are handled in such broad and irritating strokes that it might have been better for King to just ignore them altogether. The Oswald / JFK stuff is very engaging, but it takes awhile to make it to the payoff, and no spoilers here, but I thought that a little more time could have been devoted to the neat, but not fully explored, ending of the book.

11/22/63 isn't my favorite King novel, but it was fun to revisit a favorite author from my past. He really did handle the sometimes irritating conceit of time travel very nicely, and the book as a whole is engaging and probably more fun to read if you aren't spread as thin as I have been over the past month.