Even if you’re not a Stephen King fan, the plot to his latest novel, 11.22.63, has to grab your attention. It broaches a question that so many of us hypothetically ask each other so often, If you could travel backwards in time, would you stop JFK from being killed? A similar question would be, would you kill Hitler before he rose to power if you had the opportunity? The first question is the core idea that sparked this novel.
Jake Epping has been shown a portal to 1958 in the back of a diner by the owner and is now being tasked with entering the late fifties, waiting until the time is right and stopping Lee Harvey Oswald before he can pull the trigger that changed the world. Al, the owner of the diner and subsequently, the portal, had been attempting to do it himself when he was mortally stopped by cancer. The past doesn’t want to be changed we are told, so this isn’t going to be a walk in the park for Jake.
The ideas here are perfect Sci-Fi fodder and King lends himself so well to novels when he moves away from his usual patter. That is to say that this isn’t a horror story or a mystery, though it does still contain some trademark Stephen King gore. His writing is so impeccable throughout 11.22.63 that it inspires envy. King writes with such ease that even though he is tackling such a big subject and one important to his heart, the novel constantly remains entertaining with plenty of humour and plot twists.
A key proponent in the plot is that every time you enter the portal it resets what happened the last time you went through – meaning that when Jake heads out on a test mission to save a family from being killed, when he re-enters to deal with Oswald, he must do it all over again. This is perhaps key to how our hero changes over the course of the book.
Jake starts as just a teacher, happy with his life but perhaps not quite living the dream. But now he is being tasked with becoming a killer, albeit to possibly save humanity. Jake is a wonderful protagonist, he is an everyday man given a huge opportunity and King writes him with a skill that allows the reader to relate. As I mentioned in the opening, this is something we’ve all spoken about so it is fitting that we feel that we are on the same journey.
We watch as Jake struggles with the possibilities of the butterfly effects of what he is sent to do. We watch as he grows and not always for the better. Jake is a superb central character as he embodies our thoughts. Jake is no more human however, than when he falls in love with Sadie. When love steps in, Jake reacts in such a human way that there are many heartrending scenes that King shows that he can write romance and longing just as well as suspense.
Of course 11.22.63 is about the assassination of JFK, but it is more so about love and conscience. When Jake falls for Sadie we turn each page wondering how these beautiful lovers will ever last, after all if Jake is successful he will have to return to 2011. It’s this coming together that drives the reader forward as much as the suspense from the JFK plotline.
And suspenseful it is. King has created an amalgamation that morphs and changes with each chapter that passes. One moment we watch as Jake and Sadie dance together and fall in love, the next we sit with Jake as he spies on Oswald and the novel turns towards a spy thriller. Thankfully the author is one of the best in the business and once again puts the world to shame as he entwines different genres with a deft of hand.
Of course this makes it a rather easy read and the 740 pages fall like leaves in autumn. The only stumbling block for some may be the authenticity of the world Jake inhabits. King is pitch perfect in his referencing of 50’s cars, politics and pop culture and while it creates a rich environment for the story it could leave some readers baffled. It is after all a very American book. Thankfully I’m a sucker for all Americanisms from the 50’s and 60’s, so it only heightened the atmosphere of the novel.
This same authenticity is applied to the dialogue and King only slips up a couple of times. For the most part conversation between characters flows so smoothly your eyes just stop reading and they just absorb the words. King helps us along by using Jakes first person narrative to confirm regional dialects that helps make each sentence all the more believable. The only stutters come from Sadie as she, at times, comes across as too modern for a young woman in the early 60’s.
This is in complete opposite to the rest of the supporting cast who play their roles as small town folk brilliantly. Deke and Miz Mimi are stand out highlights from the supporting roles and both supply moments of cheer for Jake that the reader wants to show, but can’t. What each of these characters shows is that Stephen King is a master at people.
His portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald is magnificent. As if we need any more reason to despise the man, King writes him as a monster with a heart. We are shown moments when he beats up his wife and as he poses proudly with the rifle that changed American history which fuels his place as the monster of the book. However, we are then shown him kissing his Daughter goodbye and crying as the emotions fill him. Bizarrely for a man so talented writing monsters, King writes Oswald as a brilliant monstrous, but ultimately, human enemy.
So is this a good Stephen King book? It’s actually one of his best. I generally prefer King when he moves away from Horror and macabre and 11.22.63 just hits the nail on the head for me. The writing is impeccable, the environments and characters are everything you want them to be. Above all it’s just a superb book that shows that even at his 49th book he is only getting better with age.
I sit here looking at a review that is currently a little over 1000 words thinking that it could be twice that length and I still wouldn’t have scratched the surface in terms of plot. There’s plenty that I haven’t mentioned but all are great integral plot points. I read back over the review and wonder if I’ve done justice to what is simply a superb book and one that is sure to be in contention for my book of the year.
I will close by saying that all you need to enjoy 11.22.63 by Stephen King is an inquisitiveness that makes us as humans, shine. An interest in history is an advantage, as is a passion for American culture, but to be honest if you just enjoy a great story with a marvellous cast then you’re in for a treat. This is King at his best and it would be a shame to miss that.
Available now from Hodder and Stoughton. Hardback – 740 pages, Fiction, Kindly sent by the publisher.