It's pretty sad to say nowadays that a good Stephen King novel comes along as often as a blue moon. In the last ten years since his accident, I can count the number of enjoyable books he's written on three fingers and one of the those digits might be unused.
Far too often, King's recent novels have either been bogged down with too much 'shared universe' bollocks or have just been average at best. Duma Key was the best of a bad bunch and that, at times, felt like a reinterpretation of an earlier book. The thing that set King's Florida opus above his other 21st century turds was the character development; he seemed to have rediscovered his skill for creating well rounded and interesting people - in Wireman, he created a character that compared to many of his great earlier creations.
A lot has been said about the new book; a kind of What If Someone Managed to Save JFK from Being Assassinated; and not all of it positive. The reviewer in The Observer hated the book, but this was the same reviewer who claimed that Cell was the best thing King had written since the 1980s and that left me wondering if the reviewer had even bothered to read Cell (because it really is the worst piece of shit King has turned out ever). This particular quirk actually got me quite excited - I really don't take much stock in what reviewers say (despite accepting the irony in that statement considering what I'm writing) - and I hoped that 11/22/63 would be the exception to the rule.
The good news is - it was!
One of the things that blights King novels, especially in the last 20 years, has been their failure to feel 'complete'. Yes, they all have beginnings, middles and ends, but rarely do they feel like a nice little closed circuit. This book just radiates King's passion for his youth and at a time in the USA that was both much simpler but considerably harsher.
It starts off considerably quickly, which might be the simplest reason for why I liked it. Instead of King's usual 100 page preamble of character establishment and scene-setting this one dives straight in and is rollicking along within 50 pages. The reader literally gets no time to think before the main character goes back in time. Time travelling has its rules, which ultimately prove harder to negotiate than you would think; even if you have several stabs at something, this is something that the main protagonist discovers mostly on his own.
This is essentially a SF novel, but only in theme, it really is just a love story that happens to have a lot of nastiness going on around the edges - the consequences of Obdurate Time. Time is defensive because it doesn't want to be changed and if you try and change it then it tries to stop you and the more vehemently it tries to stop you is linked directly to how much of the future will be changed. The Butterfly Effect is pondered a lot in this story.
Jake Epping knows the guy who runs the local burger joint mainly as a customer, but is dragged into a situation that his 2011 brain struggles to comprehend. Al the owner of the greasy spoon has a doorway to the past in his pantry and has been using it to buy 1950s goods to use in his establishment, thus keeping his prices down. But Al is a patriot with a past that remembers the way USA mourned the death of JFK and he firmly believes that if the president hadn't been assassinated then the alternative 2011 would be a far better place. So he decides to stop Lee Harvey Oswald and change the world.
The problem for Al and subsequently for Jake is that whenever you go through the portal you arrive at exactly the same time on the same day in the same year - 1958 and Kennedy wouldn't be assassinated until late 1963. This meant you have to live for over 5 years in the past, which was the same as living 5 years in the present - you age. The other problem facing the would-be time changer is that he has to make sure that Oswald was really the lone gunman and didn't have accomplices - no point in killing LHO if someone else shoots Kennedy instead.
Al gets cancer and will not live long enough to try and stop Oswald and because time doesn't want to be changed, Al isn't strong enough to fight it as well as Lee Harvey. So he nominates Jake, a regular customer, nice guy and with no specific family ties and then sends him through the portal to experience a little of 1958. Like a drug, Jake is hooked, but he is also sceptical and wary; Al is obviously not telling him everything. What he has told him is that time is reset every time he returns to 1958. Anything that is done can be undone by just returning through the portal and it's September 1958 again. What Al doesn't understand and Jake eventually does is that it isn't that simple and both their actions are having infinitely serious repercussions for the planet.
Jake returns to 1958 to change the course of one of his mature student's life; a job that takes him 2 months to complete while only 2 minutes passes in 2011 (another of the strange quirks of the portal) and finds it difficult but not impossible to change the future, except while he saves an entire family, the man who he does the deed for loses his life in Vietnam. This convinces Jake that if Kennedy had lived the USA wouldn't have got so embroiled in south-east Asia. His mind is made up, he will return to 1958, repeat his first two months but with more information and then eventually find his way to Dallas, Texas, where he will kill Oswald and change the history of mankind.
Armed with just a few thousand dollars, but still a lot in 1958, Jake now using the name George Amberson gently eases into 1950s life, getting by on his savings and having the occasional bet, which meant exposing himself to mobsters and an assortment of dodgy bookies. His luck runs out and he leaves his comfortable Florida setting and heads for Texas where he stumbles into work as a teacher and we are introduced to the small town of Jodie, Tx and the steps are put in place for a typical King interlude, which I felt rounded the book out entirely.
The Observer reviewer felt Jake/George's love story was superfluous to the book, but I felt it was essential; there wouldn't have been a story had George not grabbed Sadie's right breast on their first encounter and set off a train of events that allowed all the elements to gain momentum and urgency. Without Jake/George's mini-adventure it just wouldn't have worked and I can't see what said reviewer would have replaced it with.
Suffice it to say but killing Oswald proves to be considerably more difficult than one would imagine and time weaves intricate tentacles that are somehow all interlaced - time doesn't want Jake where he is and it is continually trying to re-harmonise itself, like antibodies attempting to rid the body of an irritant.
During this intimate section of the book we are introduced to a series of rounded and likeable characters, not least the school librarian Mimi, who will probably go down as being another of King's brilliant supporting cast members; sadly she isn't used enough, but that might have been because time didn't want her to. Jake/George essentially lives a double life and the charade can't go on forever without someone noticing or taking an interest and it isn't long before different people are making different assumptions and this being the ultra-puritanical Texas of the early 1960s you can imagine what a lot of their fears were.
The upshot is that Oswald dies before he can kill Kennedy and Jake/George ends up a national hero and someone, quite amusingly, who the FBI believe works for the CIA. He is given a quick and easy escape route to wherever he 'needs' to go and so he makes his way back to Maine and the portal back to 2011, thus creating a new conspiracy theory. Before he makes it back to the doorway he is stopped by someone who knows who he is and what he is doing and some of the mysteries from earlier in the story are explained. For Jake the ramifications of what has done become all too clear. He is given a choice, but instead runs away (literally) and back to 2011.
Except now there's no Al's Diner and there's not much left he recognises. There wouldn't have been much point in having Jake return to Utopia, but equally the fact he returns to a Maine that is now part of Canada and a USA that is a complete and utter mess was pretty predictable, but like I said, had he returned to Utopia it wouldn't have worked either.
Jake had already decided that he was going to do it all again and this time, with foresight, ensure that he fixes everything that will be unfixed, but his meeting with the strange man near the portal and the fact that the world is a considerably worse place in the future puts a different slant on things. Jake knows he has to reset time; he knows that he either returns to 1958 and either relive the past yet again, but not trying to change it and not trying to make his presence cause too many ripples or reset it and return back to how the world was originally and shut the portal forever and healing the damage that has been done and preventing any paradoxes.
I won't tell you what he decides because I've already given away too many spoilers, but I will say that the final pages of this book are what elevates it into one of King's potential classics; you can't help closing the book at the end and feeling good. It is a great ending and one seemed fitting.
I'd give 11/22/63 a booming 8 out of 10