After publishing 60+ books over nearly 40 years, one would think that Stephen King – “the world’s bestselling author” – would have run out of steam, ideas, or ambition. While he has, on rare occasion, “phoned it in,” with his latest opus, 11/22/63, he has once again fashioned as compelling a pager turner as he ever has … which is saying something when those pages number around 850. I finished it in less than a week.
As this novel should be started with as little foreknowledge as possible, this review will be spoiler-free, save for a brief set-up. You will know no more going in than I did.
Regarding a recently divorced, thirtysomething school teacher named Jake Epping, the plot has this wounded man receiving an urgent call from an old friend, Al Templeton, who owns a local diner. When Jake visits Al, he is shocked to discover that the man has seemingly aged years over the course of a day. It seems that Al, whose rapidly-accelerating cancer has given him only hours to live, has a secret to share, and Jake is the only one with whom he trusts it. Al’s secret is this: in the back pantry of his retro diner, is a time portal to the past. Each trip delivers the traveler to the same time and place – Lisbon Falls, Maine, September 9th, 1958 – and, no matter how long the traveler stays, if he returns, it is only two minutes later in 2011 time. Still with me?
The reason Al has aged so much in so little time, other than his cancer, is that he recently spent over four years in the past trying to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy on 11/22/63. Due to his illness, Al failed, and returned to 2011 a dying man. As he tells his tale to Jake (one brief trip to 1958 is all it takes to convince Jake of this impossible story), Jake eventually decides to take on Al’s mission himself (after a trial run or two regarding other lesser matters), knowing full well that messing with such a historically watershed moment might make things worse … much worse … butterfly effect and all. Especially when the past doesn’t want to be changed.
While one might think that such a story would be full of clichés, predictable scenarios, and political pontificating, this is not the case. In fact, Jake doesn’t even reach the titular date until page 800. Most of the book is spent chronicling Jake’s five year stay in the past, where the food tastes better, the music is more innocent, and racism is barely concealed. While keeping tabs on Oswald to make sure the man acted alone before he makes his move, Jake returns to teaching and falls in love with a tall blonde named Sadie. Oddly enough (at least to those who only know Uncle Stevie as America’s Boogeyman), the central love story here is the very heart of this novel.
Touching, suspenseful, and damn near unputdownable, 11/22/63 is Stephen King firing on all cylinders, and proving even after four decades that he is still master of his craft. While some horrific things do occur in this book, this is not a horror novel, and will probably win the man hordes of new fans. While I, and others, have referred to King as our modern-day Dickens, he is also like a much loved uncle who is returning to spin another fantastical yarn. One feels like a child reading this book, cuddled up in wide-eyed wonder. Does praise come any higher than that? Not from me it doesn’t.