Stephen King takes us down an unfamiliar path, this time through a time portal, in his latest novel 11/22/63. Jake Epping, a divorced high school English teacher, becomes an unlikely hero when he is moved to tears as he reads an essay written by a janitor trying to earn his GED. The essay reveals that the janitor’s father murdered his entire family with a hammer. A local diner run by Al Templeton serves its signature item, the Fat Burger, at prices so low that locals call it the Cat Burger. One day, a sickly Al reveals a time portal in the restaurant’s pantry to Jake. Al seems to have developed advanced lung cancer overnight, and recruits Jake to stop the JFK assassination.
King makes his rules for time travel simple. This is not hard sci-fi, but more of a character-driven story. All anyone needs to do is descend a set of invisible stairs inside the pantry, which lead to two minutes before noon on September 9, 1958. One may stay as long as one desires, but on the return up the stairs, it will only be two minutes later in 2011. On every return trip to 1958, it is always the same time and day, and the past resets as if nothing happened. Except for the Yellow Card Man, but more on him later. Al explains that he had been able to sell his Fat Burgers at such cheap prices because he always bought the meat in 1958. Since on every new trip the past resets, Al had been buying the exact same meat repeatedly. Al then tried to stay in the past long enough to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK, but developed lung cancer before he could make it to 11/22/63.
Why must one wait? Why not just kill Oswald in 1958? Al, speaking for King, has an explanation for that. Nobody is sure that Oswald acted alone, and one must be sure when changing the past. Plus, the past is obdurate, especially when it involves a major, watershed event like the JFK assassination. Jake uses Harry Dunning, the janitor, whose essay so moved Jake, as a test case. Try and save the janitor’s family, and see how hard the past resists. And, see what consequences occur because of the change. If all goes well, then proceed to the more difficult task of stopping the assassination. King seems to side with those who say that Oswald acted alone, so do not expect any elaborate conspiracy theories.
One of King’s strengths is his reconstruction of the 1950s, a simpler time, but King never gets overly sentimental. Jake finds that everything tastes better in 1958, especially root beer from a soda fountain, but everything smells worse, because it seems like everybody is smoking cigarettes. The good old days were not perfect. Jake also discovers that the internet and cell phones did not exist in 1958, so it is much more difficult to find helpful information. King obviously conducted extensive research, especially in his portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald, who comes to life in the novel. Though he appears in a fictional world, Oswald rings true through his personality and actions. Much of the suspense comes with the knowledge that Jake must eventually come face to face with Oswald the assassin, but Jake also discovers Oswald the boy with an overbearing mother, and Oswald the spouse-abuser.
My favorite character in 11/22/63 is Sadie Dunhill, the attractive new librarian at a high school in Jodie, Texas where Jake spends time as a teacher. Sadie provides romantic tension as she and Jake develop a relationship, but Jake is not able to be completely honest with her because he is not supposed to be living in her time. I found myself becoming just as interested in their story as I was with Oswald’s story. The scenes between Sadie and Jake are some of the best scenes in the novel, as their relationship takes many twists and turns.
The story takes on mythic overtones as well. When Jake first appears on the 1958 end of the portal, he must face a gatekeeper known as the Yellow Card Man, who seems to be the only person in 1958 who knows that Jake does not belong there. Jake must give him a fifty cent piece to pass by him, much like the newly dead who must give a coin to Charon, the ferryman who takes dead souls across the river Styx to the land of the dead. Al Templeton acts as a mentor figure to Jake, recruiting him for the special mission that Jake at first refuses. Al acts as Obi-wan to Jake’s Luke, providing the call to adventure and providing him with the means to complete the mission. A series of tests that become progressively more difficult await Jake in the past, filled with figures that Jake must battle in order to proceed on his quest. Jake must save certain characters in order to hone the skills needed for the climactic battle with the evil one, Oswald. Sadie becomes the temptress as Jake moves closer to his goal, tempting him to abandon his mission.
11/22/63 is not typical of King’s work, especially his early work. King reported that he first conceived of this story back in 1971, just eight years after JFK’s death, but abandoned the idea because of all the research it would require and because he felt that he did not have the literary skills necessary to write such a book. Today, King has proven himself as a mature, seasoned writer capable of writing anything he sets his mind to. 11/22/63 is a brilliant, complex novel about chasing what might have been, and hoping the future can take care of itself.