Monday, December 12, 2011
Dropping into another era
Like many of the better Stephen King novels, 11/22/63 engages in a kind of beneficial bait & switch. In this case, readers are buying this book because of the sensational, ambitious premise: a regular guy gets the ability to travel back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination! That's the main reason we as readers think we're going to enjoy the book.
But then, we actually start reading the thing and what we really get is a wonderful, heartbreaking love story; a dozen or so fascinating, very likable characters who we're delighted to visit every time we sit down to read; one of the best dramatizations of the joys and rewards of the teaching profession when the job is firing on all cylinders; and an immersive look at a time that was both simpler and quite unnerving (the latter description fueled by the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and other 1950's and 60's stomach churners of the ongoing and out-of-the-blue variety).
And, yes, you do get a decent little plot, sort of like an extended Twilight Zone episode, about a guy trying to stop the Kennedy assassination, laced with all the familiar but always effective "be careful what you wish for" landmines we've seen in other time travel stories. In fact, I might have been the tiniest bit disappointed if the time travel/changing history plot was indeed all the book was about, because King doesn't add all that much to the kinds of plots, paradoxes, and surprise results we've seen in the plethora of time travel books, movies, and television productions that have come before. In fact, he pretty much just puts his own (admittedly, not inconsiderable) polish on those old classic elements, rather than invent new ones.
But combined with the storylines involving Jake Epping meeting and falling in love with the elegant but clumsy Sadie Dunhill, his helping a football jock unearth his hidden talent for the stage, and seeing multiple, believable examples of the amazing kindness and generosity people are capable of at their best, there was no need to scrutinize the time travel mission too much, which ultimately came off as an added bonus and not the thing we thought the book would hang everything on.
Oh, and though I won't go into specifics, the other thing the book does very well is deliver one of those heart rending, patented "I know the right thing to do but it's going to tear me apart to do it" Stephen King endings. And this one's a doozy, perfect but hard to take. But a final, nicely done grace note at the very end of the novel will at least add a small smile to readers' tears.
In the end, I guess everything I discussed above comes to this: you'll dive into this book for the Kennedy plot, but love it for the wonderful, rich novel about people and the myriad ways they can bring out the best in each other, often in the midst of great tragedy and hardship. Who would have thought that we'd get that wonderful outcome from a novel with the ominous, disturbing, sensational title, 11/22/63?
As far as I'm concerned, with results like this, Stephen King can do the old bait & switch anytime.
11/22/63 is available for $14.99 on Kindle.