© 2011 Stephen King
What would you do if you could walk through a door and into another world — the land of ago, where it’s always September 1958, where gas is cheap, root beer is creamy, and cars sport tailfins? Such was the opportunity English teacher Jake Epping accepted when his friend Al invited him into the pantry of his diner. For years, Al has known that there exists a curious fissure in spacetime there, one which allows people to pass from the present to 1958 as easily as descending a few steps. He’s never revealed it before now, but he has something he wants to accomplish in the past — something he can’t do himself.
The mission, of course, is saving President Kennedy’s life on 11/22/63 — five years from the date that the fissure opens into. If Epping takes on the mission — and he will, for personal reasons as well as to help his friend Al — he will have to live at least five years of his life in the past, in a time without modern medicine and conveniences. But the past has its attractions, as well.
11/22/63 is a multistage novel; at first, Epping is drawn in by the extraordinary premise and the novelty of exploring the past. Before setting forth on his mission proper, he takes several jaunts into the past to explore how he might survival in this familiar-yet-alien world, and realizes that simple changes can have broad effects — and the greater the effect of a potential change, the harder it will be to accomplish. The past is not a static canvas giving Epping free room to move: it is obdurate. It resists change, and the whole of the novel is haunted by the past’s resiliency. Even when things seem to be going well, there’s still anticipation that something is bound to go horrifically wrong. As Jake’s mission begins in earnest, the novel becomes more a story about a man finding his place in a community. I haven’t read much of King (The Stand, Christine, and Firestarter), but I wouldn’t expect such emotional meat from an author who is known for horror and fantasy. King’s characters seem real, to the point that I started googling at various intervals to see if they were historic personalities. As the fifties give way to the sixties, Jake’s mission takes priority — leading to the action which we’ve been building up to for hundreds of pages. I had no idea what to expect from the ending, but King delivers a stellar conclusion.
11/22/63 has, I think, displaced The Stand as my favorite King novel. It’s as compelling a character drama as I’ve ever read, filled with little historical details that delighted a person fascinated with the period like myself — and of course, driven by the tantalizing lure of being able to change the past. Definite recommendation. Had I participated in the Broke and the Bookish’s most recent list (top ten books read in 2011), this would have have been on there.