Being the dreadful literary snob that I am, I have never felt moved to read any of populist author's Stephen King's work. When I saw a synopsis for his most recent publication, 11.22.63, I realised it was high time to bury that irrational prejudice. However, the book is daunting – a very hefty 730 pages - which needs to be factored into the decision-making process. I only have time to read during my daily commute which of course meant I would be lugging around the tome for a protracted period of time.
Good sense prevailed and the book was duly purchased. The central conceit is the discovery of a time travel portal from 2011 back to 1958, affording the opportunity for a would-be time traveller to rewrite history. So should the traveller wait around for five years, it would be possible to prevent the assassination of President J F Kennedy.
Al Templeton owns a burger bar in Maine (so no geographical departure from King's other novels) and summons over his teacher friend Jake Epping one evening to the diner. Jake is shocked to discover that Al has terminal lung cancer and outwardly looks terrible, despite Jake being in the same restaurant only days before when Al looked perfectly fine. Al explains that in the pantry of his diner there is a 'rabbit hole' that enables travel back to 1958, and he has been using it for years to buy 1958-priced meat thus keeping his own costs down. Furthermore, Al has concocted a detailed plan to stay in 1958 and to wait until 1963 to prevent JFK's assassination. Unfortunately during those five years he develops the cancer and has to return to the present day with his assassination prevention plans carefully documented. Al has selected Jake as the man young enough to accomplish the task, and after careful consideration Jake accepts the assignment.
Jake steps through the portal and arrives in Lisbon Falls on September 9 1958 at 11:58. King has constructed rules for his rabbit hole – every time someone travels through the portal, there is a 'reset', i.e. any aspect of history that has been changed from the previous visit is changed back. This serves two purposes – should the butterfly effect cause undesirable results, another visit will restore the equilibrium, but also it neatly sidesteps one of the problems of time travel – it renders it impossible to bump into yourself from a previous visit.
In King's novel, the past is obdurate – it steadfastly refuses to be changed, and puts obstacles in the path of Jake to stop him re-writing history. This leads to literary 'bug' number 1. Most of these obstacles are intended to kill Jake, and he has to be fleet-footed to avoid death on many occasions – so should he be killed, then history will also be rewritten. So King is suggesting that this obdurate past is selective and makes decisions on how far it is prepared to be changed.
Literary bug number 2 strays into the same territory as Back to the Future Part II. Consider this: Marty is in the future in 2015 and picks up a sports almanac with results of sporting events over the preceding 50 years. Let's call this year 2015(1). Old Biff steals the almanac and borrows the de Lorean and travels back to 1955, giving the almanac to young Biff, telling him to place wagers on all the sporting events since he already knows the winners. Young Biff goes on an unheralded winning spree at the bookies and through chaos theory changes history. That means many years later when he arrives at 2015, it is no longer 2015(1) but a totally rewritten 2015 which we'll call 2015(2). In 2015(2) society has broken down, delinquents roam and crime and low-level thuggishness is rife. But hold on – the almanac was taken from 2015(1) not 2015(2) therefore the whole notion of Biff going on a winning run is utter nonsense – the results would slowly diverge away from those printed in the almanac over a period of time. King makes the same mistake in his novel and Jake uses the bookies to fund his stay in the 50s and early 60s.
Literary bug number 3 concerns Jake's 1950s girlfriend Sadie. She is tracked down by her psychopathic ex-husband and held hostage. In one version of history Jake manages to get a message to his colleague Deke to prevent Sadie being killed. In another version of history when Jake is not in the 50s, Deke still manages to prevent the killing of Sadie. But how on Earth can he do that since Jake is not in that timeline to tip him off?
There are other concerns with the novel. The rabbit hole in the 1950s is guarded by a sociopathic drunk 'guardian' with a yellow card in the rim of his hat. It is inconceivable that 'reality' would place such an unstable individual in a position of such authority when the stakes are so high. The alternative future after Kennedy is saved is poorly sketched out and inconclusively plotted.
However, there are many positives from the experience of reading this novel. It is irrefutable that King is a master storyteller. The phrase 'page-turner' can certainly be coined when discussing this book. It is refreshing to read a book without cryptic metaphors; a book that doesn't require the re-reading of many paragraphs to truly understand the narrative. This is overall a fun book – one with a rich and complex story line, one which is thoroughly enjoyable despite the flaws I have already identified. Despite me marking this as three stars, the book comes with my recommendations. It really has to be experienced.