Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Review: "11/22/63" by Stephen King

Grade: A-

What happens when the master of horror writes an alternate history?  You get 11/22/63 by Stephen King.

I am a big Stephen King fan so I was excited when I learned he was going to try his hand at alternate history and I enjoyed the final product.  The novel is a first person narrative by character Jake Epping, a tall, divorced, thirty-five-year-old high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine who also teaches adults in the GED program. He receives an essay from one of the adult students, Harry Dunning the janitor at the high school, that tells the story about the Halloween night 50 years ago when Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a hammer. Harry escaped with a smashed leg, but the blow he received to his head stunted his mental development.  Epping, not an emotional man, is deeply affected by this essay and turns him into the perfect candidate for time travel.

For you see Epping's friend Al, who runs the local diner and is dying from cancer, introduces Epping to a bizarre discovery: his storeroom is a portal to 1958. Al has discovered that every time you use the portal you arrive at the same time and location.  No matter how long you spend in the past, you are gone only two minutes in the present.  No matter what you change, time appears to reset to the original timeline once you use the portal again, but anything you bring back will remain in the present.  After spending a moment in time to get acquainted with the idea, Al recruits Epping to accomplish what he was unable finish: prevent the  Kennedy assassination.

In Al's mind all of the issues and tragedies of the past decades can be traced to the death of Kennedy.  If it can be stopped, a better timeline will result. Jake agrees to do it, not because he believes in the lost opportunity of Jack Kennedy, but to save his friend Dunning from the horrible beating he received from his father.  So armed with Al's research on the past and a stash of 50s money, Jake takes the name George Amberson.  Of course, things aren't easy for Jake/George.  There is still the possibility that Lee Harvey Oswald was not working alone.  Meanwhile, the past is working against Jake.  It does not want to be changed and it will throw everything it has against him to maintain the original timeline and hurt those that Jake cares about.

Like many King novels, 11/22/63 is a massive tome, full of historical research.  King captures what it was like to live in the late 50s/early 60s.  I can understand why some people pine for that era.  Americans were friendlier and safer.  You could leave your home without locking the door and if you were a stranger, folk would stop what they were doing to help you.  Not only did food taste better, it was cheaper.  In fact everything was cheaper. I would love to have my own portal just so I could get gas for my car.

Yet this time period is far from a utopia as can be imagined.  There is the irrational fear of the supremacy of the Soviet Union and the belief that they must be destroyed with nuclear fire before it is to late.  Good Christians quote the Bible as a reason for why blacks should squat over a creak instead of being allowed to use a public restroom.  Straying from mainstream society even a little can ruin careers and lives.  If a woman is abused by her husband, it is her fault for not being able to control her man and she has to learn to live with it.  Domestic violence is a major theme in the novel and Jake runs into many Oswalds before his climatic showdown with the assassin.

Those hoping to be immersed immediately into an alternate history will be disappointed.  Though one could argue that history begins to change as soon as Jake enters the time portal, recognizable changes will not be noticed until the last 20% of the novel.  I will not spoil what actually changes, because I think the journey Epping takes is more important then the world he creates.  The outcome, however, will upset Kennedy fans who hold the belief that he would have been a great president if his life was not tragically cut short.  Nevertheless, alternate historians need to understand that changing the past does not always lead to the outcome one desires.  We saw this philosophy before in Kowalski's The Company the Dead and it appears again in 11/22/63.  As always, do your research and do not assume everything will be peachy after you get what you want.  Even Jake comes to realize this in a way that is not dissimilar from I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.

While alternate history content may be minimal, this is an excellent, well-researched story with an important message.  I highly recommend that you pick up this novel, just be ready for the long read.

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Mitro is the founder, editor and contributor to Alternate History Weekly Update. When he is not busy writing about his passion for alternate history, he spends his time working as a licensed attorney in the state of Illinois and dreams of being a published author himself one day.

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