There are many things in life that I enjoy enough to wait for with giddy anticipation, like a kid who just knows when she looks outside that she’ll be waking up to a school-free snow day.
Any time Stephen King releases a new book, I am that kid doing the snow dance. I just can’t wait to get my hands on it. I love to read many authors, but King transports me to other minds, times and places in a way that no one else can.
So when 11/22/63 was released in November, you would have expected me to have it on hand the same day. Instead, I decided to wait until after Christmas to get it, so that it would be my reading treat over my long holiday work-break. I knew that if I put it on my Kindle beforehand, there was no way I could wait for those long and lazy days to get started.
As it turns out, it took me much longer than my 10-day break to finish the book. It wasn’t that King didn’t pull me in as he always does, because he certainly did. It was just that life happening and my own writing gave me a case of “reader, interrupted.”
For those who don’t know, 11/22/63 asks the question “what happens to the future if we could not only go back in time, but change the outcome of history?” Specifically, high school English teacher Jake Epping is asked by a friend to travel back in time and finish a job he couldn’t complete himself – stopping the assassination of JFK. At first, Jake is reluctant to take on such an overwhelming task. But then he learns about a tragic childhood event that happened to someone he knows and cares for as an adult – and decides that he has no choice but to dive into changing the future.
Because the “rabbit hole” (as Jake calls his time travel portal) can only take him back to 1958, Jake has to live in the past for 5 years to accomplish his mission. The novel is the story of a man who was in his late 30’s in 2011 discovering life in the late 50’s – of learning to savor simplicities he’d never known even while missing some modern conveniences. It is the story of a man building relationships with people who would have been long gone or very old in his 2011 life. It is the story of what happens when a man from the future who carries the weight of a world-changing mission on his shoulders finds himself trapped in the beautiful and everyday experience of falling in love. Jake has to wrestle with deciding what matters more – changing the outcome of history or having a “normal” life with a woman who would have been old enough to be his grandmother in the future – if she was even still alive.
Such a storyline is a tall order for any writer. Here are my impressions after finally finishing King’s wild 11/22/63 ride.
– Once again, he is the master of pulling me into the impossible and making it real enough to hold me there. Do I believe someone could go back to 1958? No. Does King describe the time and place, the emotions and people, the everyday events and odd deja-vus and “harmonies” that Jake encounters along the way well enough for me to get enmeshed in the story and characters anyway? Of course he does. He’s Stephen King. I had totally suspended my disbelief after the first few chapters.
– Lee Harvey Oswald seen through Jake Epping’s eyes is one of the better history lessons I’ve ever received. I’ve mentioned before that I grasp history best when I see it through a story. In 11/22/63, we see Oswald’s desperation, cruelty, and craziness. But we also see his smallness, and there are moments where you don’t exactly pity him, but you see something else. You realize that if he had been able to control his violent temper, see the good in his life along with the hardships, and accept being ordinary, he might have led an average but happy life. It wasn’t his uniqueness that made him a villain in the pages of history. It was his inability to accept being small.
– I loved Jake Epping for all his struggles and mistakes as well as for his heroism. But he wasn’t my favorite character. For me, he was eclipsed by Sadie Dunhill, the schoolteacher who steals Jake’s heart.
No main character in a King novel has a history that isn’t full of small or large strangenesses and horrors. Sadie was no different. She wasn’t just some auxiliary storyline love interest who fell into a weird world the day she met Jake. She had suitcases full of her own crazy already in her heart, and they changed the outcome of Jake’s story as much as her involvement with him altered hers.
Of course King wouldn’t let Sadie be some wilted flower who always needed saving by the hero. But he didn’t make her superwoman either. There were times when I felt she was being so weak and stupid that I wanted to grab her and shake her. But there were more times that her determination, open-mindedness, and bravery made me wish I could call her a friend. For a late 50s/early 60s chica, Sadie grew herself a big set of balls. What I loved most about her was that growing them scared the crap out of her and she did it anyway.
Obviously, I recommend the trip into the past with King, Jake and Sadie. If you love King, a good story, food for thought, tales of love or just an adventure, it is a must-read. But I did come away with a couple of questions I wanted to throw out there to other readers.
1. As I’ve explored the guidelines of various potential short story publishers over the years, I’ve seen the following suggestion more than once – “don’t make your main character a writer. Bor-ing.”
King doesn’t listen to that rule in his novels. He doesn’t have to. The lead in Salem’s Lot was a moderately successful writer. Stuttering Bill in “It” grew up to be a famous writer, and that’s what he was when he went home. Mike Noonan in “Bag of Bones” was a wealthy novelist with a bad case of my-wife-is-dead writer’s block. Paul in “Misery” was a novelist who got kidnapped by a rabid fan. The main character in “Lisey’s Story,” was a woman encountering a weird world that was essentially created in the mind of her dead writer husband Scott. Those are just the ones that come to mind in a two-minute think-through.
Jake Epping is a high school English teacher. He doesn’t become a published writer in the story, but he writes his butt off. He uses “working on a novel” as his cover story for being an unemployed man with enough money to get by, and actually works on the book that supports his alibi. Even when not talking about his book, Jake thinks like a writer. Early on, we spend a lot of time with him as he grades high school and adult learning class English papers.
For me, that stuff is like candy. As a writer, I love it when the characters I’m spending my time with write. It helps me relate to them. I usually get an unexpected lesson in writing from them even as I’m enjoying a good tale.
But what about non-writers? If you’ve read a lot of King, what does his leaning towards making his main characters successful or struggling novelists contribute or take away from his stories for you? Does it get old, or do you enjoy the glimpse into the writer’s life? Or, given that their profession is just one slice of the story and their personalities, does it matter at all?
2. In 11/22/63, Jake Epping spends some of his time in the past in Derry, Maine. King fans know Derry well, of course. I loved the return visit. As an avid King reader, it almost felt like one of the “harmonies” (the past and present coming together in odd ways) that kept happening to Jake himself. I especially enjoyed his encouter with Bev and Richie, two of the children who were lead characters in “It.” For me, it tied their own off-the-wall experiences to Jake’s in a way that made perfect sense. They were all insiders into the “out there.”
But thinking back, I wonder if Bev and Richie did anything for the story for those who had never read “It.” The encounter is too brief to get too much insight into them, but long enough that you know it is supposed to matter. If I didn’t already “know” these kids, I might have just thought their words and actions were unexplainable and just too off-the-wall. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me much – I’d have just chalked them up to something I didn’t understand yet, and so much happened later that I’d most likely forget about them.
But still – I wonder. Is putting in characters from other works with only minimal context a good idea? For King, it works. But he gets away with things other writers don’t. Like writing about traveling back in time to 11/22/63 in the first place. Because he’s King. If you’ve read the book, what did you think of Bev and Richie’s part?
If you haven’t read 11/22/63, I hope you add it to your list. If you have, what were your impressions?