If you have not read 11/22/63 and plan to, DO NOT, repeat, DO NOT read this! You have been warned.
I’m not sure quite what to say about this book. I might be over-reacting because it’s so fresh, but this may be the best King novel ever. It may be better than The Stand. It transcends genre. It’s not quite horror, but, in same cases, yes, it is. It’s drama, it’s thriller, it’s human interest, it’s a hero story, and it’s science fiction. All wrapped into one small…no wait. There’s no such thing as a “small” Stephen King package, is there? 849 pages worth, this one.
11/22/63 is a time travel story. Jake Epping discovers that his friend Al Templeton has a “rabbit hole” in the pantry of his diner. This “rabbit hole” is a sort of “time tunnel” (we find toward the end that it’s called a “bubble”). It goes back to 1158am, September 9th, 1958. Every time you go through it. (I was 6 months old, then.) And, no matter how long you stayed, when you got back, it had been exactly two minutes in 2011. Al had gone back, and as an experiment, had saved a girl from being killed by a gunshot in a hunting accident. The problem is, when he went back, it reset everything. She was dead again. He eventually comes up with this valiant plan to, if you know your dates at all, you’ve already guessed it, save JFK from being assassinated in 1963. He almost makes it, but his health is failing, and he can’t quite do it. So he enlists Jake Epping. Jake is skeptical. But he goes through just to see. At the entrance (or exit) is this guy known as the Yellow Card Man. Later on, we find that these guys are sort of “guardians” of the time travel strings. Anyway…Jake comes up with his own experiment. There’s a janitor at the school in which Jake is a teacher. His name is Harry, but everyone calls him “Hop-along,” because of an injury he received as a child. Seems his father flipped out and murdered his whole family, but Harry managed to escape. So Jake decides to try to prevent this one.
He goes back as George Amberson. Al has already prepared fake identification for him. He also had a stack of money that he had won gambling back there. Easy to win, right? You already know who won everything. George goes back. He finds a way to occupy himself until October 31, the day that Harry Dunning’s father went nuts. But time, as King keeps saying in this book, is “obdurate.” It resists being changed. George encounters several obstacles that night, but still manages to get into Dunning’s house just as the dad is coming in with the sledgehammer. He, along with a helper that enlisted himself, manages to save everyone except Harry’s older brother. He goes back to 2011 (two minutes after he left) to find that Harry survived only to enlist in the armed forces and die in Vietnam. He’s satisfied that this all works, agrees to go in for the five year stretch and try to save JFK.
When he gets back in, he starts over. He finds Harry Dunnings father in a cemetery (at his own parents’ grave) and kills him there, before he ever gets to Halloween night. Then he goes and saves the girl from the hunting accident. Then he just kind slowly meanders down to Texas. He spends a few years in Florida, teaching. He gambles a little (but not little enough to keep from raising some suspicion, which is why he has to leave Florida). He gets to Texas and, not liking the atmospheres in Fort Worth and Dallas, moves down south of Dallas to a town called “Jodie.” He lands a substitute teaching position at the local high school and befriends a few people. Times were different then…they didn’t do background checks.
He also falls in love with Sadie. As he stalks Lee Harvey Oswald through his various moves in Fort Worth and Dallas, Sadie becomes suspicious and cools things off. One day, though, Sadie’s ex husband shows back up and hurts her. He slashes her face with a knife. George shows up, along with their friend Deke, in time to save her life, but not in time to save her face. She becomes very depressed after this, and almost kills herself one night. George shows up just in time, saves her life, and this causes her to finally believe in him. (They had been broken up for a while.)
She eventually figures out that he’s “not from around here,” time-wise. She finally asks him, point blank, “Are you from the future?” After this, she insists on helping him. After many other events, they finally arrive in Dallas on 11/22/63, where, together, the fight through all the obstacles that time puts in their way, and make it to the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository in Dallas, Texas. Oswald is in the window, gun pointed. The motorcade is coming around. George/Jake (Sadie knows his real name, by now, as does Deke) yells at Lee. He turns, snarls, and turns back to the window. As he takes a shot, George/Jake shoots at him with his .38 Special. It misses, but causes Lee to miss. Screams are heard from below. Lee turns and aims at George. George trips when Lee fires. The bullet hits Sadie, who was right behind him. She dies. You knew King couldn’t let George be happy, right? But then bullets fly from below, and Lee Harvey Oswald “danced in death like a marionette.” (Thank you, Elton.) The president is saved. George Amberson becomes a hero. The FBI investigates him, finds that he was not involved with Oswald, and lets him “disappear.” In fact, the help him disappear. He makes his way back to Maine (where it all started…I totally left out the whole Derry, Maine section…as well as the dancing parts; they were very cool). As he finally approaches the “rabbit hole,” he meets another “guardian” (this one with a green card). They have a brief discussion about all the damage that Jake has done by saving JFK. He tells Jake to go ahead, go back to his time, but don’t stay too long. Jake goes through the portal/bubble. He’s in a bathroom, instead of a pantry (remember, it’s still only two minutes after he left). There are no buildings, only ruins. There are some people, around, but not many. There’s a gang of rough kids running around. There are earthquakes rumbling every few minutes. (Oh, I forgot about the California earthquake that happened shortly after he saved JFK, killing 7000 people!) Everything is different. He stumbles across Harry (remember him…I had completely forgotten him by this time) in a wheelchair. This time, he had still gone to ‘nam, but had only been paralyzed by a copter crash. But all the presidents had been different. There had been other assassinations. Wallace had been president, and was assassinated. McGovern had been president. Bill Clinton died of a heart attack, so his wife was president.
Jake decides to go back through the hole. His plan, though, this time, was only to meet Sadie again. Forget Harry Dunning. Forget the hunting accident girl. Forget JFK. He loved Sadie and wanted her back. The Green Card Man pleaded with him. Don’t do it. Just reset it and go back home. After staying a short while, Jake realizes that it’s too risky. He can’t be so selfish that he can risk the world just to satisfy his love. So he goes back to 2011. The diner is back. Everything is back.
After a short while, he takes a trip to Texas. Down to Jodie. Where he finds eighty-year old Sadie. They dance.
Of course, I’ve left out a lot. It was, in my opinion, a beautiful story. There are some problems with it…King made a few mistakes. For example, in 1963, someone tells George/Jake to bet money on the Bears to win the NFC. Um…sorry…that was much later. There was, I think, an AFL along with the NFL, but the first Superbowl wasn’t until 1967. Later, the AFL and NFL merged, forming the sole NFL, split into NFC and AFC.
Also…he kept misspelling Killeen! There is a town in south Texas called Killeen. King consistently spells it “Kileen.” I’m not sure I understand this.
Anyway. I can live with these small mistakes. It’s a great book. Right up there with the Dark Tower.