‘THE past is obdurate" is Stephen King’s mantra throughout this sprawling time -travel epic and his 49th novel. Any attempt to mess with history — stubborn and unyielding beast that it is — can threaten the very fabric of the universe.
This is a melodramatic statement, to be sure, but quite in keeping with the immense mission weighing on main character Jake Epping as he steps through a doorway into the past to stop the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy.
Also immense is the size of this tome, which makes for an indulgent multi-day (or week) holiday read.
Though each new King title seems to be longer than the last -- and screaming for an editor with a huge axe -- not a page is wasted here. From the start, 11 /22 /63 (a sticky title apparently kept after a publishing intern asked what it meant) takes off at a rip-roaring pace, delivering a fascinating ride for both King's "constant readers" and Kennedy buffs -- although fact nit-pickers should be prepared to suspend disbelief.
This is time travel, after all, and a fun read first and foremost, not a history book. That said, King cites several respectable reference works in his afterword for anyone wanting more in-depth Kennedy material.
Jake, one of King's typically flawed English teacher heroes, is the only person at Maine's Lisbon High School willing to eat at Al Templeton's suspiciously inexpensive diner. Al's secret is a pantry that leads to a specific date: 11:58 a.m. Sept 9, 1958.
After making many trips (groceries were cheaper back then), Al discovers he can change the course of history. Unfortunately, he also discovers every time you step through the door, you reset the past and erase any changes made on the last trip.
Dying of cancer, Al convinces Jake to take up his torch to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating Kennedy. On the way from 1958 to 1963, Jake prevents several other tragedies from happening: a hunting accident that paralyzed a little girl, and a family tragedy revealed by one of Jake's adult students in an assignment entitled "The Day That Changed My Life." Then, Jake falls in love.
The book almost stands alone in King's oeuvre, because it deals overtly with a major political incident. But when it comes down to it, this is another of his heroic odyssey tales, like The Stand or The Dark Tower series. Even It, Salem's Lot and Rose Madder come to mind, since the main characters must overcome a terrible monster that threatens the world as they know it.
In these last three, King presents the themes of childhood trauma, corrupt government, and domestic violence through supernatural creatures, but 11 /22/ 63 dispenses with the monsters and cuts right to unconcealed humanity.
Early on, King makes it clear that there is a more powerful lesson at hand here than the history of the Kennedy assassination and an examination of conspiracy theories surrounding Oswald. King writes passionately and frankly about love, compassion, appreciating what you have in life, and never taking anything for granted because every moment is precious and fleeting.
Jake learns that the threads of life lead to many choices that result in many different possible consequences in time. Despite his advantage of being from the future, Jake learns he can't control everything or protect everyone from harm.
In his afterword, King acknowledges American Jack Finney's 1970 novel Time and Again as "the great time-travel story." Readers familiar with Finney's work may note some similarities in King's plot, but those used to King's homage-paying to the likes of Poe, Hawthorne and Dickens might excuse the imitation as flattery.
King has outdone himself here in terms of quality writing. Readers with little knowledge about 1960s America will enjoy the detail and care he takes in creating an authentic past. Beyond the details of history, the characters are vivid, lively and well-rounded. Even Oswald, though ultimately a monster, draws some sympathy when shown next to his horror of a mother.
King gets away with his indulgent length this time, because he gives us worthwhile characters and an engaging and thought-provoking story.
The marketing co-ordinator for Turnstone Press in Winnipeg, Christine Mazur wrote her master's thesis on Salem's Lot.
By Stephen King
Scribner, 849 pages, $40