11/22/63 by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The first six pages of this time-travel novel were so well written, so powerful, so gripping, that I knew I'd made the right decision, to borrow the behemoth from the library and read my first Stephen King novel. What was going on in those six pages that they affected me so much?
The narrator, Jake Epping, is sitting in an empty high school classroom, listening to the sound of a basketball game down the hall, correcting essays by the students in his GED English class. He has asked them to write about "the day my life changed." The class, adults working on a high-school diploma equivalency certificate, are distressingly poor students. And the essays are much alike.
Until he comes to the one written by the high school janitor, a man with a pronounced limp who is what I think we now call developmentally challenged. In any case, his command of grammar and other niceties of the language are almost nonexistent, but his essay is so heart-felt, so powerful, that Jake Epping weeps. And that essay changes Jake's life.
Not the sort or thing you expect to exert such power and edge-of-your-seat excitement. If Stephen King can do that in six pages about a high school English teacher in an empty classroom reading a student essay, I can only imagine what he does with some of the horrific and terrifying subjects he tackles.
I had read some of King's nonfiction and liked both his clean, hard style and what he had to say about fiction. So when I saw this time-travel book, with no other para-normalities I decided to give it a try. It's very long, 1033 pages in the large print edition I read, but a really good book can't be too long, can it.
This one was indeed a good book, but I think it could have been about half the size. Some of the things that happen to Jake as he goes about his life in the late 1950s and early 60s are repeated. But then one of the major themes of the book is repetition, events that echo other events, names that reappear only slightly changed, what Jake calls harmonies. But my complaint is just cavilling. The depth of the author's research into that earlier period and his knowledge about the Kennedy assassination is impressive but lightly used. Never does he throw in an interesting bit of info just because he happens to know it. Everything fits.
The narrator, in part because of his having befriended the janitor, is convinced by the proprietor of a local hamburger joint to go back in time - one always arrives in late October 1958 - and stay long enough to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from murdering the president. As he whiles away the five years before that fateful day in Dallas, Jake gets a job teaching in a small town in Texas and falls in love. And it was that part of the book I liked best, Jake's relationship with his students, the community of friends who come together in small towns to help one another, his delight in the woman (a librarian, but that didn't influence me at all, I promise) that he falls in love with was beautifully done.
Jake discovers that everything he does while he is back in the world of the early Cold War has some sort of effect on the 21st century world he returns to. It is this influence his every move has on other people and events that frightens him most about his time-travel adventure. He comes to the realization that we all influence one another every day; we don't have to travel back in time to be influential:
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.
King also describes a migraine headache better than anything I've read anywhere.