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11/22/63 by Stephen King

May 11, 2012

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By my best count, this is the 20th Stephen King book I’ve read. Although he’s not my favorite author and I haven’t read any of his works in years, that’s by far the most I’ve read by any single author. When I was younger I plowed through novel after novel of his. He has an imagination unlike any other and the sheer amount he writes is incredible. The concept of this novel sounded interesting, so I thought I’d jump back in (although I did so in audiobook form which, at over 30 hours, was still pretty daunting).

The protagonist of this book is Jake Epping, a recently-divorced high school teacher living in a small town in Maine. He is introduced by a casual acquaintance, Al, the owner of a favorite local diner, to a rather peculiar thing in the diner’s storeroom—a stairway that descends into a time-traveling portal, connecting the modern day with 1958. The time-traveling story is a sci-fi standard, but you can’t expect a standard story from King.

Al, who is dying of lung cancer, has selected Jake for a special task. Al’s been traveling back and forth through the portal, conducting research on Lee Harvey Oswald. And he’s decided that the greatest contribution he can make to mankind before he kicks the bucket is to stop the assassination of John F Kennedy. He’s isolated this moment as a pivot point for much of history, impacting civil rights, geo-politics and the entire psyche of the nation. The only problem is that he won’t live the five years from 1958 until the assassination. So he asks Jake to do it.

This novel feels very long at times. When Jake travels through the portal, it “resets” everything to its original state, so there are entire trips through the portal, some long with quite a bit of significant action, that are completely erased. That said, the novel doesn’t drag. King may include more than is necessary, but he’s a master of suspense and of propelling the reader forward. Sometimes this propulsion feels heavy-handed, but it works to keep the ride moving. The voice of the narrator is also heavy-handed, hokey at times, sometimes annoyingly repetitive. But King makes up for all of this with the intrigue of the situation—the thought experiment that has riveted sci-fi fans over and over: what if we go back and change the past? What will change as the effect of our actions ripples out through the years? In this case, what would happen if someone went back and tried to undo one of history’s biggest watershed events?

As a simple premise, it’s incredibly intriguing. And despite the few drawbacks of the novel, the story lives up to the premise. It’s like a good blockbuster action film—you’ll suspend disbelief and forgive some of the contrivances if the movie delivers on the central promise of good action. The same is true here. And King delivers.

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