11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011): According to his Afterword, King originally conceived of this novel in 1972 but decided not to work on it then because of the enormous amount of research involved in presenting the lead-up to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. At the time of the novel’s conception, King was still a part-time writer employed full-time as a high-school English teacher, the success of Carrie that allowed him to write full-time still some time in the future.
So it’s perhaps fitting that the protagonist of 11/22/63 is one Jake Epping, Maine high-school English teacher in 2011 and soon to be a time traveller to the world of Ago (as he calls it) — September 1958.
Basically, the premise of 11/22/63 is that there’s a mysterious gateway in time located in the supply closet of a greasy-spoon restaurant in 2011. The proprietor of the restaurant, a friend of Jake’s, has been using the gateway for years to buy cheap supplies from 1958 stores. The gateway always goes back to the same exact time, the duration of one’s 1958 visit is always two minutes in 2011 no matter how long you stay in 1958, and every time you travel back in time, everything you did on your previous visit is erased. The restaurant owner has been buying the ‘same’ hamburger from 1958 for years, for example.
But now Al, the restaurant owner, is dying of cancer, having failed to live long enough starting in 1958 to make it to 1963 and save JFK, which he believes will fix almost everything that went wrong following JFK’s assassination. So he convinces Jake to take up the torch. Both men want solid confirmation that Oswald acted alone (in both the novel and in King’s mind, Oswald’s status as a lone gunman is almost completely certain), so killing Oswald before there’s some nearly complete proof of his approaching guilt isn’t justifiable.
Al dies, leaving Jake with a large stash of money he’s picked up in repeated trips to 1963 and copious notes on where and when Jake needs to be to confirm or disprove Oswald’s guilt. And off we go, with an early sidetrip to demon-haunted Derry, Maine (location, most notably, of King’s 1986 novel It) before the main event.
The laws of the time bubble mean that this isn’t a science-fiction novel — the past tries to protect itself from change, and some of the rules governing cause-and-effect would seem to require a conscious, self-correcting mechanism. That’s OK, as King has never been all that good at science fiction.
That he sticks us in Derry a couple of months after the main 1958 events of It also points to the fact that this novel takes place in a universe where the supernatural works. And there are other potential complications. A seemingly harmless drunk always hangs out at the 1958 exit point of the bubble. But the drunk, Al has observed, actually seems to be vaguely aware that time is being mucked with. Is someone or something monitoring Jake once he makes his way to the past? Some of his nightmares suggest this may be true.
King’s plotting is sharp here, free of most of the longeurs that plagued Under the Dome and a few other recent novels. The Derry sequence seems like the best section of the novel to me, partially because we revisit It from a slightly different perspective, and partially because Jake’s double-outsider view of Derry as both a non-resident and a time traveller adds another layer to It. Derry really does resemble one of H.P. Lovecraft’s supernaturally skewed towns herein. The town scares Jake for the months he spends there, despite the fact that the child-killing creature from It is (mostly) somnolent by the time of Jake’s stay in Derry.
Once his business is done in Derry, Jake moves on, first to Florida and ultimately to Texas to begin gathering information on Lee Harvey Oswald. King leaves plenty of room for both exposition on the Kennedy assassination and for Jake’s late idyll in a small Texas town where he works as a teacher and eventually falls in love. But time (or maybe Time would be more accurate) continues to try to stop Jake. Worse, strange coincidences and nightmares start to plague him. Can history be altered in such a large way? And what will 2011 look like when Jake returns to it, if he does return?
Well, that’s the point of the whole later stretch of the novel, isn’t it? King keeps the plot chugging along, and the final stages of the struggle to stop Oswald are as tense as any sustained sequence he’s ever written. The novel also makes the historical characters explicable if not necessarily sympathetic — even Oswald becomes a figure of pity as well as of wrath, as do his Russian wife and young daughter. Highly recommended.