Thursday, November 20, 2014

Book Review: 11/22/63

© 2012 by Stephen King

Stephen King introduced me to the modern adult thriller / horror novel.  And he did so with a vengeance. 

It must have been the summer of 1983, I think.  My family would vacation at a cabin near Lake George, a beautiful, serene, semi-isolated yet popular wooded area in upstate New York.  That summer I spotted a gnarled copy of Cujo staring menacingly at me from one of the shelves in that cabin.  After a brief hesitation, I cornered it and wound up reading the entire thing so blazingly fast that bear with the ranger hat knocked on the window and ordered me to slow down.  Remember pausing for ten minutes, deliciously sick over the whole Red Razberry Zinger thing in the novel, then diving wholeheartedly back in. 

Next school year I made friends with a new kid who was a King fanatic.  He fed me novels, one after the other, and senior year I ate ’em up: The Stand, The Dead Zone, Carrie, Night Shift, The Shining, the Bachman books.  A lull when I went to my trio of colleges, then I put away a half-dozen or more.  My taste in horror expanded to Dean R. Koontz and John Saul for some healthy competition.  Then, sometime in the mid-90s, after reading Gerald’s Game, I think, my love for the master collapsed.

Maybe it was personal literary growth, maybe it was just a change of reading direction, maybe it was dissatisfaction or over-familiarity with the King formula.  I dunno.  Wife got me Dreamcatcher, and, though it was as swiftly readable as ever, left me wanting a bit at the end.  Read a few stories from Everything’s Eventual as well as his nonfiction On Writing, but that’s about it in the past fifteen years.

But enough about me and my King-reader credentials.  What did I think about 11/22/63?

Well, knowing my interest in the JFK thing, my stepfather picked up the book for me a few months ago.  I put it on top of the pile on the book case behind me, awaiting my annual JFK-themed November read.  I cracked it two Sundays ago and that familiar whirlwind Evelyn-Wood-ish speedreading took over.  Couldn’t put it down, despite work-, financial-, spousal-, and child-rearing-responsibilities.  Took me ten days, and for me to race through 850 pages in ten days with how my life is packed – and trust me, I’m not bragging about having a packed life – for me to maintain an 85 page/day velocity, even book-lover me, is astounding.

It was a great, fun, fast-paced read.  I’m glad I read it. 

That being said, let’s dissect it a bit, okay?

If you had the opportunity to travel back in time and had the opportunity to save President Kennedy at admittedly difficult sacrifice – would you do it?

Jake Epperly eventually decides to.  The mild-mannered dancing high school English teacher enters the twilight zone when an acquaintance who owns a fast food joint just so happens to discover a mysterious portal into the past in a far corner of a basement storage closet.  The weird little tear in time and space deposits the traveler into 1958.  Same geographic point, only some fifty-plus years back into America’s history.

The owner, an older fellow named Al, initially makes travels into the past only to buy cheap meat for his business.  He notes an alcoholic hobo with a Yellow Card tucked in his Hat right next to the portal on the 1958 side, and makes an ominous point to tell Jake that this guy has some heretofore unknown significance.  But Al makes a discovery: no matter how long you stay in the past, only two minutes transpire in 2012.  On Al’s final visit he spends five years there, and when he returns he has unfortunately succumbed to incurable lung cancer.  (How does he support himself in the past?  Easy – he bets on World Series and boxing matches he knows the outcome to, something Jake will be forced to do with some nerve-wracking consequences.) 

During that final trip Al becomes obsessed with stopping Oswald.  He spies on him, tails him, researches him, compiles a thick notebook on all his movements and associates.  The only thing that stops him from taking Lee Harvey out is – he needs to be more sure the assassin was acting alone.  If he was a patsy like he claimed on national TV, Al would be killing him in cold blood.  And if he was part of a conspiracy, well, perhaps taking Lee out way before 11/22/63 would still not keep Kennedy alive.  So he needs to be more sure.  Not a hundred percent, mind you, but ninety-five to ninety-eight.

That’s where Jake comes in. 

Persuaded by a dying man and his own ideals and hang-ups, Jake steps back into 1958 for the long haul.  Hundreds of pages of the middle section of the book detail the life Jake – now George – makes for himself, how he bides the vast segments of time he’s not stalking Oswald by resuming his teaching, falling in love, making a difference among the youth and population of a small Texas town.  This new real life begins to interfere with his ulterior objective, plans are thwarted, and – you knew this – Jake is stumbling up those Texas School Book Depository steps to thwart those three bullets …

And when he returns to 2012, he finds a whole lot has changed, and none for the better …

Solid B.  Not his best, not his worst.

There was a lot I didn’t like. A lot of that bugged me during the reading and not just reflecting upon the tale after I finished it.  First and foremost, it was way too long.  The 850-page novel could survive intact with 200-250 pages of bloat trimmed.  Every character “Christ!”s and “Jesus!”s at least once every coupla pages, and King’s anti-Christian bias seeps through every now and then in the writing (thankfully not as much as in some of his earlier works).  Though I like the beginning revisit of the town of Derry (from It), the big middle chunk in Jodie, Texas, was a tad bit more hokey than I could swallow (the high school play, his mentor’s death, the “meet cute” which King/George even mentions as such, for example).  The payoff I expected towards the end, the purpose of the Yellow Card Man, could have been fleshed out a bit more; as it was I felt cheated by it a bit.  I could forgive the too-little info about his “job”, but the “alcoholism” part seemed a bit sped over cuz it didn’t make too much sense.  King’s liberal bias seeps through too, every now and then (every character a Democrat, Obama and Hillary doing “about as well as could be expected,” … George Wallace the president who nukes Vietnam?!?!).  And the philosopher in me would have like to see more interior rumination or explicit conversations on the immorality of murder / ends justify the means dilemma Jake must face.

That all being said, the book had a bit more plusses going for it.

Yeah, it was the blistering page-turner that King books are to me, and most of the reading English population it seems.  All well and good, and man does he know how to write a suspenseful scene.  The books contains more than a handful, and on most of the ten days I read it I stayed up past my bedtime to find out how George was going to escape this or that.  King does a fine job reimaging the late 50s and early 60s for me, and – the best part of the novel – I absolutely loved the characterizations he brought to Oswald (having George refer to him somewhat disdainfully as “Ozzie”) and his suffering wife, Marina, who he paints with such a poignant brush you really feel sorry for her and forgive her future activities.  Oswald’s mysterious “friend,” George de Mohrenschildt, completely and splendorously came to four-dimensional life, and Jake’s encounter with him was, for me, the highlight of the novel. 

And though I felt the post-denouement ending somewhat of a let-down (like a third-rate science fiction novel), the final two or three pages were so sweet / bittersweet that it actually still brings goosebumps to my arms, even as I type this.

Grade: B.

No comments: