His­tor­i­cal fic­tion à la King

Heart-stop­ping, mov­ing novel about chang­ing the past to save JFK

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - RENE RO­DRIGUEZ

Thrilling novel fol­lows time-trav­eller on jour­ney to save JFK,

11/22/63 By Stephen King Scrib­ner, $39.99

‘The past is ob­du­rate. It doesn’t want to change.’’ The past is also a dan­ger­ous, fickle place — and woe to any­one who dares al­ter it. That’s the mantra coursing through

11/22/63, Stephen King’s mam­moth, gen­er­ous and thrilling novel about a man who trav­els back in time to pre­vent the as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy.

He is Jake Ep­ping, a di­vorced, 35-year-old high-school English teacher from Lis­bon, Maine, who dis­cov­ers a time-travel por­tal in the pantry of a neigh­bour­hood diner. When he walks through it, Jake is trans­ported five decades into the past. No mat­ter how long he spends there, only two min­utes will have elapsed in 2011 when he re­turns. And each time he makes the trip, time re­sets, and it’s 11:58 a.m. on the morn­ing of Sept. 9, 1958, again.

Sur­pris­ingly, 11/22/63 is the first time-travel novel the pro­lific King has writ­ten, and the author has ob­vi­ously spent much time con­tem­plat­ing the para­doxes in­her­ent in the genre. But King is more in­ter­ested in his­tory than he is in Back to the Fu­ture an­tics, and although he takes oc­ca­sional lib­er­ties with the facts, read­ers steeped in the de­tails of the as­sas­si­na­tion — and the life of Lee Har­vey Oswald in par­tic­u­lar — will get a rush out of fol­low­ing Jake, who goes by the alias of Ge­orge Am­ber­son in the past. As Ge­orge, he spies on Oswald and his wife Ma­rina, even mov­ing into the apart­ment be­low theirs at 214 W. Neely St., where the fa­mous photo of Oswald hold­ing a ri­fle was taken.

First, Jake per­forms a test run to make sure his ac­tions in 1958 will im­pact the fu­ture. The ex­per­i­ment takes him to Derry, a town where a clown has been dis­mem­ber­ing chil­dren and the vibe is one of pre­vail­ing evil. The first 250 pages of 11/22/63 form a sus­pense­ful, oc­ca­sion­ally hor­rific mini-novel that will de­light fans of King’s mag­num opus

It, capped off by a bit­ter­sweet res­o­lu­tion that is a har­bin­ger of what’s to come.

Once Jake is con­vinced he can al­ter the course of his­tory, he sets out on his mis­sion, which will re- quire him to spend sev­eral years in the past (in­clud­ing a brief stint in Florida de­railed by a Cuban bookie with mob ties and a fate­ful stop in New Or­leans that has far-reach­ing con­se­quences). Even­tu­ally, he moves to Texas and be­gins to plan for his preemp­tive mur­der of Oswald in 1963.

“Pos­si­bly later that April, more likely on the night of the tenth — why wait? — I would kill the hus­band of Ma­rina ... If you saw a spi­der scut­ter­ing across the floor to­ward your baby’s crib, you might hes­i­tate. You might even con­sider trap­ping it in a bot­tle and putting it out in the yard so it could go on liv­ing its lit­tle life. But if you were sure that spi­der was poi­sonous? A black widow? In that case, you wouldn’t hes­i­tate. Not if you were sane. You’d put your foot on it and crush it.’’

But Jake can’t sim­ply hole up in a ho­tel room and make a liv­ing by plac­ing bets on sport­ing events to which he knows the out­come. The bulk of 11/2/63 is not com­posed of King’s an­swer to the sce­nario “What if Kennedy had lived?’’ nor is the book the glo­ri­fied Twi­light Zone episode its premise sug­gests. 11/22/63 is re­ally King’s ode to his youth (he was 16 when J.F.K. died), a book that recre­ates the era of sock hops, 10-cent root beers, in­escapable cig­a­rette smoke and “the hey­day of Jayne Mans­field, (when) full breasts are con­sid­ered at­trac­tive rather than embarrassing’’ with such af­fec­tion and de­tail that you are swept along on a huge wave of nos­tal­gia re­gard­less of your age.

The book doesn’t ne­glect the dark un­der­belly of the pe­riod — the seg­re­ga­tion, the racism, the re­pres­sion, the hypocrisy, the chau­vin­ism and the nu­clear fears (King’s re­cre­ation of the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis is par­tic­u­larly vivid). But as Jake grows ac­cli­mated to life be­fore cell­phones and Google and meets a li­brar­ian who be­comes the love of his life, 11/22/63 draws you into the lives of or­di­nary peo­ple and their prob­lems with the pull that has al­ways been the se­cret to King’s suc­cess. By the time the epony­mous date draws near, and the novel hur­tles to­ward Dealey Plaza and that aw­ful Texas School Book De­pos­i­tory build­ing, you’re more wor­ried about the fate of char­ac­ters you’ve grown to love than how the world will change if Jake suc­ceeds.

King has re­ferred to 11/22/63 as a de­par­ture: His first foray into his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. But this ad­dic­tive, heart-stop­ping and ul­ti­mately mov­ing novel is re­ally a dis­til­la­tion of what King has al­ways done so well, with­out the third-act prob­lems that have plagued so many of his re­cent books and fea­tur­ing a mon­ster — time — that is most cer­tainly not make-be­lieve. At one point, Jake laments the fact that “We never know which lives we in­flu­ence, or when, or why. Not un­til the fu­ture eats the present, any­way. We know when it’s too late.’’

For­tu­nately King, who is now 64, has long been aware of how much his faith­ful read­ers love him, and 11/22/63 is, in many ways, a gift from him to us.

JOE KO­HEN, GETTY IM­AGES

Stephen King recre­ates the 1950s and ’60s in his am­bi­tious, best­selling new thriller 11⁄22/63.

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