Monday, November 28, 2011

CR Review #38: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

First things first, I'm a huge Stephen King fan. I've read every single one of his books (except for maybe Danse Macabre) and as many of his short stories as I could get my hands on. I love figuring out how threads of his stories link to other stories (most of which link to the Dark Tower series, which I adore). I first read The Shining when I was in 8th grade (and my mom even got it out of the library for me) -- it scared me to death, and I loved it. When I read the Stand a few weeks later, I was so scared I couldn't sleep for days. And then I read it again as soon as I finished it. And over the next few decades, I devoured them all. Even the forgettable ones with weak endings (hello, Lisey's Story)...and it seemed like lots of recent ones have had endings that have disappointed lots of fans (Under the Dome was a great story and idea, but the ending didn't quite hold up to the first 700 pages. And don't even mention the end of The Dark Tower to most fans).

I'm very happy to report that while 11/22/63 isn't perfect, it is definitely more like Stephen King of old -- a huge story with richly drawn characters, and a chilling and fitting ending that works ideally (I guess we have the wonderful Joe Hill to thank for that, as Mr. King thanks his equally talented son in the afterword for helping him to correct the ending. If you haven't read 20th Century Ghosts yet, run out and get it right now. It is awesome.).

11/22/63 tells the story of Jake, a high school teacher in Maine (surprise!) who ends up traveling through a "wormhole" in time to 1958, with the task of stopping the JFK assassination in 1963. Along the way from Maine to Texas and from 1958 to 1963, Jake changes a few other things -- he stops a man from killing his family, he prevents a young girl from becoming paralyzed, and he makes money by placing bets on sporting events that he already knows the outcome to. And then he gets to Texas, settles down, gets a job teaching at the local high school, and he falls in love with the town librarian. And all the while, he wonders about "the butterfly effect" that is always discussed in time travel stories -- how will the small things he changes in the past change the future?

Meanwhile, he studies and follows Lee Harvey Oswald from his arrival in Dallas after defecting back from Soviet Russia (with his beautiful wife and baby daughter in tow). Jake rents apartments near Oswald and even spies on him with tape recorders and binoculars. He decides that if he can prove that Oswald was the attempted assassin of General Edwin Walker -- an outspoken anti-communist (someone took a shot at him in his Dallas home in April 1963, but missed), then the odds were higher that he was, in fact, the sole shooter from the sixth floor of the book depository.

But if Jake stops Oswald, how will this change the future? If Kennedy lives, what happens next? Does the US still get involved in Vietnam? Does his brother Robert decide to run for president in the future? Does he live or die? What about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement? And what about the people that Jake helped along the way -- the family who lived because their father didn't kill them in a drunken rage in 1958? The girl in the wheelchair from rural Maine? And his beloved Sadie, the Texas librarian? Do they fare better or worse in the new version of the future?

King also includes some sly references to past works -- some of the kids from It appear at the beginning of the book, the Yellow Card Man (I'm guessing he's a "breaker" or something like it), and of course the town of Derry, Maine. And my absolute favorite reference: to Dwight Holly, the fictional FBI agent from James Ellroy's American Tabloid trilogy. American Tabloid is one of my all-time favorite books (Note to self for 2012 Cannonball Read: re-read and review American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood's A Rover).

Glad to see King back in his groove.

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