Book Review--11/22/63 by Stephen King


I have never been what you'd call a crying man... I wish I had been emotionally blocked, after all... Because everything that followed--every terrible thing--flowed from those tears.

These are three sentences from the opening chapter of Stephen King's latest novel, 11/22/63. I don't remember the last time I read a book that so completely enthralled me from the very first sentence. I continued to be enthralled for all 842 pages (plus the 7-page afterword).

The first time I saw the title of this book, I didn't know what I was looking at. Was it an article? Was it a headline? I finally realized it was the title of a book when I heard a friend of mine was reading it. She told me it was nothing like what you would imagine of a Stephen King novel. For me, a SK novel involved horror. I don't do horror, so up until a week ago I'd steered clear of the bestselling novelist. But my friend said I would like this one, and she has a good sense of my taste, so I figured I'd put it on reserve at the library and see what everyone was talking about.

The person who had the only copy checked out just happened to return it 10 minutes after I walked into the library, so I got to take it home that night on a 7-day loan. (Although after reading 11/22/63, I'm inclined to wonder if there are any true coincidences.)

The last time I checked out a book on a 7-day loan was last year when I read Unbroken (my favorite book of 2011). I remembered it being a fast and furious week of reading and wondered how SK would fare in comparison.

I needn't have worried.

The basic premise (which I knew little about before I started reading) is this: High school English teacher Jake Epping, living in present-day 2011, enters a portal to the year 1958 and becomes involved in a quest to save John F. Kennedy from being assassinated in November of '63. Jake will need to settle down in what he calls the "Land of Ago" for the next 5 years, assuming a new identity as Mr. George Amberson, stalking Lee Oswald and waiting for the right moment to change the course of history.

At first, I have to admit I was skeptical. I mean, time travel? Back to the Future has already been done. I soon realized, however, that Jake Epping has much bigger problems than Marty McFly, and Stephen King is a creepier, more analytical Doc Brown who makes time travel seem like a terrifyingly real possibility.

I was pleased to discover that in 11/22/63, the rules of time travel are rigid: Each time you enter the portal, you appear on the same day in the same place in 1958. And no matter how long you stay in the past--be it 5 minutes or 5 years--you will enter back into the Land of Now (as Jake calls it) exactly 2 minutes later. The rigid rules of time travel helped me trust in the book so I could let myself be drawn into the story. In a sense, I felt as if King was saying to me, "Even though I made them up, I can't bend the rules either. This is just how time travel works. I don't know why."

Stephen King does a few things I would never recommend to an author. But he's Stephen King and can do what he wants, so who am I to complain? For one thing, King's direct reader address (using "you") works well in this book and helps me believe in Jake as a normal person who is just as confused as I about why and how this is all happening. As a general rule, however, I do not like direct address and do not recommend trying it without supervision. King also foreshadows a lot, which works for increasing the suspense, though often I find that authors want to utilize this tool in an ineffective way (ie. foreshadowing too much). And if I were to voice a minor complaint, it would be that at times the foreshadowing does feel a bit excessive.

Something he does that I loved and would recommend an author take note of are his character descriptions. Following are initial descriptions of three main characters. Notice how King gives an immediate image of each person without using cliches or focusing only on lame features such as eye and hair color or pointing out every single article of clothing. Yes, he does utilize colors and clothing, but it is always for a purpose of establishing a clear image.

My first impression of Sadie--everyone's first impression, I have no doubt--was her height... This was a woman who had probably last worn heels to her own wedding, and even for that occasion she might have picked a dress that would hide just one more pair of low- or no-heels, chosen so she wouldn't tower comically over the groom. She was six feet at least, maybe a little more... Sadie had, in the argot of the day, a really good build. She knew it and was self-conscious about it rather than proud. I could tell that from the way she walked. 

[Lee's] nondescript hair was neatly combed. He was, in fact, the perfect A.J. Squared Away in his pressed white shirt, khakis, and shined shoes. He didn't look like a man who had just completed a journey halfway around the world; there wasn't a wrinkle on him and not a trace of beard-shadow on his cheeks.

[Marina] was exhausted, bewildered, and staring at everything. She was also beautiful, with clouds of dark hair and upturned, somehow rueful blue eyes... When her lips parted, I saw that one of her teeth was missing. The others were discolored, one of them almost black. The contrast with her creamy skin and gorgeous eyes was jarring.

Can't you just picture these people? 

Word of caution: if you end up reading this book, don't be like me and try to make too much of the JFK thing. I initially tried to figure out why this particular incident was supposedly the turning point of American history and why it was so important that King made it the focal point of the entire book. But the same friend who recommended the novel to me pointed out that SK probably just picked a (as Jake calls it) "watershed moment" and wrote a book about it. That was all.

In the Afterword, I found out that King began this novel in 1972, nine years after the JFK assassination, so it makes sense why he chose this incident--because it personally affected him, not to mention the rest of America in the decades following when conspiracy theories erupted about whether or not Oswald acted alone, and discussions continue even today about what the world would look like had Kennedy lived.

King eventually offers his own answer to both questions, which serves as a solid ending and was exactly what I was looking for. But I also realize that King giving an answer is not the point of this book, though I appreciate him taking a stand and proffering a firm opinion. Questions about the past and "what would haves" will always be part of our world, and it's fun to explore that from time to time; but, again, that isn't the point. It's the journey that interested me, not necessarily the destination. The characters I met along the way were engaging and real, the suspense was palpable, and my nerves remained taut.

The book isn't scary, though it is creepy. My favorite chapters were also my least (if that makes any sense at all)--when Jake (George) spends a few months in the small town of Derry, Maine. King paints the portrait of a dark town full of secrets and tragedy, and it haunted me well after the section was over. Still, creepy* as it was, it was also my favorite part because it felt so real. That's where I personally saw King's brilliance on full display.

That King spent uncounted hours of research on this project is obvious. I was actually in the sixties while I read this book, and Jake's nostalgic account of a long-ago era actually makes me want to go there myself to get root beer from a soda fountain and drink cold milk from a glass bottle.

So how do I conclude? I guess by noting that though my first Stephen King novel was a success, I still don't do horror; so until I get another recommendation, I won't be rushing to pick up the likes of Carrie or Cujo. Still, this book was excellent, and Stephen King has officially added one new member to his fan club. (But not literally officially, you understand. I'm more of the hypothetical-fan-club type of fan.)

I feel I should warn my more conservative readers (as if we're pretending that I'm not a conservative reader myself) about the F-bombs littered throughout the text and the occasional sex scene. Neither were graphic, however, and neither took away from my enjoyment or concluding opinion that after 11/22/63, you'd be hard pressed to find a person who doesn't like at least one novel by Stephen King.

So go, read, enjoy.

And if you happen to find a time portal to the past, for goodness sakes don't touch anything! It's called the butterfly effect, and it's nothing you want to mess with.

*I realize I'm repeating the word creepy. But there are no adequate words in the Thesaurus to describe creepy besides creepy. Look and see.

Anonymous said...

SUCH a good review. And eerily similar to mine in some ways. Kind of like when we wrote our half-marathon reflection posts, huh? I too am glad we didn't read each other's before writing our posts.

You are right about his impeccable character description. He certainly has a gift there.

And YES to the wanting to go get a root beer from the Kennebec Fruit. I even found myself thinking, "Maybe someday, if I'm in Maine..." and then having to remind myself that even if I am in Maine someday, I will never be there in 1958! good.

I love your description of King's rigidity with the time-travel rules. That was something I felt too but couldn't put my finger on it, and you've articulated it extremely well.

Brian liked my review, and he can't wait to read the book. Therefore, I will be sending him here too, to read yours, hopefully to get him even more excited about it. :)

I am so, so, so glad you liked this book as much as I did. Home run review.


PS I love that I recommended both this one AND the one you're calling your favorite of 2011. :)

belongfellow said...

Well, Audra's agenda has been accomplished. 11/22/63 has advanced a few more places on my to-read list. The biggest reason, I think, is because both of you are unabashedly effusive regarding your enjoyment of the book. It's not nearly as easy as it used to be to find books that capture me in this way, and I no longer take those that do for granted. So I look forward to it. And I'm already planning my review to be merely links to the two great reviews I've now read. So thanks for easing my burden.

I like your conclusion to the time travel paragraph. King is a skilled writer and this is a nice example of why. Of course there are several other reasons as well, and I like your example of his skill with character description. I couldn't help but be reminded of my recent re-reading of The Great Gatsby. For the first time, I noticed that Fitzgerald managed to accomplish foreshadowing even with his character descriptions in the first chapter. Based on your analysis, I wouldn't be surprised if King manages the same thing in this novel.

Your second-to-last sentence cracked me up. Your caution not to use second person "without supervision" gave me a good laugh as well.

Two tentative recommendations: "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" is simply a beautiful story, and well-told. It is only about ninety pages and is published in the collection Different Seasons. I enjoyed two of the other three stories in the same collection: "The Body" (which became the movie Stand By Me) and "The Breathing Method." Each of these selections probably qualifies as a novella, and I believe each of them falls outside the generally perceived qualifications for the horror genre. The second tentative recommendation is The Green Mile. Again, this novel walks a line I would place in the creepy-but-not-horror camp, and it is a poignant story that contrasts compassion with ill-conceived "justice," if I remember correctly.

Thanks for the good review. Count me as your newest follower!

Amanda said...

Audra, I'm glad you liked the review! We are awesome, as previously discussed. I'm glad I'm not the only one who wanted to travel back to the 60s and drink soda pop. (And I don't even like root beer :) Thanks for sending Brian over! Oh, and keep up your recommendations. You have yet to fail me.


Brian--thank YOU for coming over to read my review. I consider my blog privileged to have you as a reader. I hope you will find subsequent reviews as enjoyable. I appreciate your recommendations, as I am always looking for more books to read--and to step out of my normal reading box.

Thanks again!
And good day to you, sir.