Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review: 11/22/63 By Stephen King

Stephen King's 11/22/63 begins with an intriguing premise: What would America look like if JFK had lived?  Would history have taken a different course? The question has long haunted the baby boom generation who lived through the agony of Vietnam.  Many believe America never recovered from that awful day in Dallas.  Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK added more fuel to the fire by suggesting the assassination amounted to nothing less than a military coup d'etat.  King's novel, like most of his long fiction, hits some rough spots in the middle, but recovered as it moved towards a gripping climax.

Jake Epping, the tale's protagonist, teaches High School English.  As a character, Jake's an all around good guy who finds himself caught in extraordinary circumstances.  When his friend Al, who owns the local diner, introduces him to a time portal, he convinces Jake to travel back in time to save Kennedy from Oswald (the time portal always goes back to October 1958).  He quickly learns the travails of time travel and the dangerous consequences of meddling in past events (the butterfly effect).  Even when Jake tries to prevent the murder of his friend's family he learns nature will resist in the most uncanny ways.

The first half of the novel allows King to revisit some familiar territory as returns to Derry, Maine, the locale of of his well known novel It (Jake even interacts with some characters from that story).  King does a great job of illustrating some subtle differences between the 1950s and 2000s. But the novel doesn't romanticize the past either, as Jake witnesses firsthand the shame of segregation and racism.  Also, post-war America remained painfully close minded about the place of women in society.  Women were expected to bear the humiliation of bad marriages and their presence in the workplace remained strictly in a servile capacity.

When the setting shifts to Texas the novel loses some steam. Jake finds a teaching job in a small town outside of Dallas and falls in love with the kindly school librarian, Sadie.  Sadie's a bit too good to be true at times, but she adds some poignancy to the tragic arc of Jake's story. When he plays detective the novel gets caught up in trivial details surrounding Oswald's life in Dallas.  Epping follows Oswald to learn if he acted alone or was the "patsy" of a much larger conspiracy.  Another novel, Libra by Don Delillo, handles Oswald's tale in a far more effective way by portraying him as an ignorant kid exploited by a nefarious intelligence community.  In 11/22/63, he's a hateful, one dimensional drone.

Despite the meandering lead up to the climax, the final 150 pages are tension filled and thought provoking.  Without revealing too much, there is something to be said for avoiding hero worship when it comes to Kennedy.  In King's version of time travel, every decision made, no matter how mundane, will have consequences.  And when you start changing major events in history things can quickly spiral out of control.

Fans of King's fiction will find much in common with his 1979 novel, The Dead Zone, in which the protagonist suffers a brain injury. After coming out of a coma he has the power to see into the future.  In time, he learns a man destined to become President will trigger a nuclear war.  The story asks, Would such knowledge justify murder? The David Cronenberg starring Christopher Walken stands as one of the best adaptations of a King novel.

From a historical standpoint, King challenges his audience to be wary of nostalgia.  Yes, an exhaustive list of challenges loom for 21st century America.  We are reminded of those constantly.  At the risk of sounding too optimistic, it is useful to think of the progress America has made in the past 50 years - and to consider how things could always be way, way worse. In other words, don't let anyone tell you live in a time of decline and moral erosion - those arguments always stem from false premises and a selective memory. Instead, remember Kennedy by living up to his words "ask not what you're country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."