What if you could alter one pivotal event from the past? Would it change everything that came after? Would you be able to alter the course of human history by preventing the death of a single, very important, person? In one of his most ambitious and challenging novels, Stephen King asks the question, gives the answer, and does so much more.
Jake Epping is just a high school teacher in Maine when his friend Al, the owner of the local diner, changes his life by offering him a chance to travel back to 1958. Al’s been selling hefty hamburgers for $1.19 for years, and everyone’s always wondered how the burgers could be sold so cheap (unless they were made of cat). It turns out Al’s been buying his beef from the 1950s, and at 1950s prices.
In back of Al’s diner there’s a portal to the past that only opens on the exact same spot on a single day in 1958. Every time you go through the portal, you walk into 1958. Once you’re there, time passes normally, but once you leave, everything resets. Al’s spent years researching the portal, figuring out its time travel rules and the implications of what he can achieve with it.
Al decided long ago that the ultimate positive change he could affect would be to go through the portal, wait five years, travel to Dallas in the fall of 1963 and stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He reasons that if he did this, everything would be different. Vietnam might never have happened, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. might also still be alive, the whole trajectory of United States history would shift. But Al has terminal cancer, so someone else has to do it for him. That’s where Jake comes in.
After experiencing life beyond the portal for himself, Jake takes the assignment and spends the next five years in a bygone era. He gets a new job, he moves to Texas, he falls in love, but all the while his eye is on a man named Lee Harvey Oswald, and the dark deed he’s planning.
The bulk of King’s story – which adds up to more than 800 pages – isn’t about Oswald or Kennedy at all. It’s about one man’s very curious relationship with time. Throughout Jake’s life in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, time seems to be getting in the way of everything he’s working toward. It’s as if the universe is standing in the way of his quest. His new and old lives are blending together in his head, events are making it more and difficult for him to focus on the task at hand, and his relationship with a woman who lived her early life a full 40 years before he did is changing the way he feels about everything.
King brings these phenomena to life with an intoxicating array of historical, cultural and emotional details. It would be easy to make this book a simple thriller filled with the rush of stopping an assassination and the daunting task of overcoming history, but what King cares about most – and what he makes us care about most – is the life Jake lives before that fateful day ever arrives. In true King fashion it all links together in the end, but in the years before that day in Dallas we are left to follow a man through a new life in a new time. That King chose to tell his story this way is proof of his guts. That we care so much about it is proof of his gifts.
Though horror is his bread and butter, 11/22/63 reveals King to be an elegant, self-assured and often surprising practitioner of the science fiction tradition. Time travel stories are all too often clunky with technical mumbo jumbo and scientific quagmires, but with his simple invention of a portal to another age in the back of a Maine diner, King has created something both astoundingly simple and endlessly intriguing. Jake carries the story, but that portal is its backbone, and it remains forever sturdy.
With 11/22/63, Stephen King has once again affirmed his place at the pinnacle of American storytellers, and he does it with a story that’s as much about America as it is about the intrigues of time travel. This is a towering, masterful book told by a towering American master, and it is not to be missed.
11/22/63 is in bookstores everywhere Nov. 8.
Advance reading copy courtesy of Scribner.