“Sometimes the things presented to us as choices aren’t choices at all.”
Few writers can gut punch readers with an ending the way Stephen King can. Written in the first person, 11/22/63 is ominous from the start. But why it is so ominous takes over 850 pages to understand. For all his flaws with endings, the final lines are usually cutting. Take another story told in first person, The Green Mile. It’s only at the end, the very end, that the true cost of the story is revealed with that haunting final line “We each owe a death, there are no exceptions, I know that, but sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile is so long.” If you read the book you know exactly what I’m talking about. And maybe even got a chill same as I did when I read it years ago.
King has really been on tear lately and with 11/22/63 he swings for the fences and smashes the ball in to the stratosphere. The novel is tremendously entertaining and an absolute epic at 850 pages. Those pages will fly by though as you are almost immediately sucked in to the simple-in-concept, but complex-in-execution story.
In the town of Lisbon Falls, Maine in the year 2009, Maine school teacher Jake Epping learns there is a portal to another time in the stock room of his friend Al’s diner. The portal takes you to September 9, 1958 at 11:58am. Always. Al has been using this portal for years to visit the time period because no matter how long he is gone, when he returns to the present only 2 minutes have passed. Now Al is dying, and entrusts Jake with what he sees as his legacy: stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy from occurring on November 22, 1963. After going through the portal himself and making a test run to stop a smaller tragedy from occurring, Jake takes on the mission. Almost immediately obstacles in the form of people and events are thrown in Jake’s way. Like Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap, he is trying to put the wrong things right living in a time and place he has little understanding of. If Jake is going to change the past, he’s going to have to fight it every inch of the way. Because the past doesn’t want to be changed.
King’s use of language and roller coaster plotting is tip top. 11/22/63 is scary and exciting but also lyrical and romantic. More than once the phrase “dancing is life” is mentioned and dancing comes up quite a bit. It is introduced early on at the beginning of an extended sequence that will delight Constant Readers (and I won’t dare spoil here) and reoccurs again and again as Jake navigates the “Land of Ago” as he calls it.
There is a lot more I could say about the plot but I’m going to leave it there. I knew next to nothing about the story and really enjoyed the twists and turns and themes and characters that came in to it. I firmly believe the less you know the better.
In the afterword King specifically thanks his novelist son Joe Hill for bringing up aspects of time travel he hadn’t thought of and, in King’s words, “he thought up a new and better ending.” This goes to reaffirm a notion I’ve had for a while now; ever since Joe Hill has been on the scene it’s really revitalized Stephen. It’s either friendly competition or Joe is helping him break the stories and given this comment I think it’s a big helping of the latter. Early on – and I usually hate King’s explanations for the supernatural – King addressed and moved past every question/thought I had about the time travel aspect of 11/22/63. Also, this book doesn’t feel like it’s meeting a publisher quota. It feels urgent, like his computer was having a hard time keeping up with King’s typing. There is something in the writing where the era feels completely authentic. All of the King tics, colorful descriptions, and language from his classics is on full power and it’s a goddamn delight.
11/22/63 is in the top ranks of King’s best. If you fell off the King (BLAINE) Train for a bit like I did this is a great one to hop back on and rekindle what you loved about his books in the first place.
The last line is going to cut you to the quick though. You can trust me on that.