Books postsWednesday September 25, 2013
Book Review: '11/22/63' by Stephen King
Stephen King’s “11/22/63” is really four Stephen King stories in one. It’s:
- a horror story about a crazy ex-husband who murders his family in a horrible small town in Maine.
- a love story about a 1960s teacher and librarian who deal with small-town mores and another crazy ex-husband.
- a story of a lucky gambler who invokes the wrath of the mob.
- It’s also the main story: A teacher from 2011 goes back in time to Sept. 1958 to stop 1), above, unexpectedly gets involved in 2) and 3), and, most importantly, tries to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from killing John F. Kennedy five years later. He’s going to try to right a great American wrong.
That’s why this thing is 800-plus pages. It’s heading toward a day we know too well but takes its time getting there. It gives us other stories, other books, first.
King is a great storyteller, and he can do the creepy vibe better than almost anybody, but even he can’t make Lee Harvey Oswald interesting. That’s where I got bogged down: When our hero, Jake, who takes the name George Amberson in the past, spies on Lee and Marina in their ramshackle Texas apartment. That’s when I began to lose interest. I began to flip pages.
Similarly after 3), when gangsters beat up George and leave him for dead. By then it’s September 1963, just two and a half months to go, but he barely survives the attack. He loses much of his memory. Will he get it back? Will he remember what he’s supposed to do? Of course he will. But not for a while yet. So more page flipping.
Sorry, Stephen. I know the past is obdurate—it doesn’t want to change (I love that bit, by the way)—so I know everything will get in the way of Jake/George trying to change it. But that’s why we’re here. We want to see what happens. We want to see if he stops the JFK assassination, and, if so, what happens afterwards.
Here’s a relevant quote from Gore Vidal’s review of William Manchester’s “Death of a President” way back in 1967:
The narrative is compelling even though one knows in advance everything that is going to happen. Breakfast in Fort Worth. Flight to Dallas. Governor Connally. The roses. The sun. The friendly crowds. The Governor's wife: “Well, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you, Mr. President.” And then one hopes that for once the story will be different—the car swerves, the bullets miss, and the splendid progress continues. But each time, like a recurrent nightmare, the handsome head is shattered.
Here, for once, the story is different and the handsome head isn’t shattered. Here, in fact, King gets to vent against the little pissant who altered our history:
The presidential limo had taken off, driving toward the Triple Underpass at breakneck speed, the two couples inside ducking and holding onto each other. But the security car had pulled up on the far side of Elm Street near Dealey Plaza. The cops on the motorcycles had stopped in the middle of the street, and at least four dozen people were acting as spotters, pointing up at the sixth-floor window, where a skinny man in a blue shirt was clearly visible.
I heard a patter of thumps, a sound like hailstones striking mud. Those were the bullets that missed the window and hit the bricks above or on either side. Many didn’t miss. I saw Lee’s shirt billow out as if a wind had started to blow inside it—a red one that tore holes in the fabric: one above the right nipple, one at the sternum, a third where his navel would be. A fourth tore his neck open. He danced like a doll in the hazy, sawdusty light, and that terrible snarl never left his face. He wasn’t a man in the end, I tell you; he was something else. Whatever gets into us when we listen to our worst angels.
A bullet spanged one of the overhead lights, shattered the bulb, and set it to swaying. Then a bullet tore off the top of the would-be assassin’s head, just as one of Lee’s had torn off the top of Kennedy’s head in the world I’d come from ...
King has written about political assassinations before, hasn’t he? “Dead Zone” from the mid-1970s anyway. There, his main character doesn’t come from the future but he can see the future. There, he’s the assassin of a man who will end the world if he becomes president. Here, he’s the killer of an assassin ... and winds up, well, ending the world.
That’s the other disappointing part of the novel. You want to see what happens with Kennedy unharmed. You want to see how our history, meaning my entire lifetime, is changed. But King stacks the decks against that future by having the cosmos essentially object to its changed course. Nov. 22 1963: JFK is almost assassinated but saved by two schoolteachers; Yay! Nov. 24, 1963? Massive earthquake in California. Seven thousand people die. Whoops.
And it gets worse. When George returns to 2011 it’s a sci-fi dystopia: roaming noseless hoodlums and China Syndrome radiation and regular earthquakes everywhere. Scientists predict the world, the universe, will break apart by 2080 and that will be the end of everything.
I went to the site once. In late spring 2004, the year George W. Bush beat John Kerry for the presidency, I visited Dealey Plaza. It was quiet that day. Not many people walking about. No one was ever walking about much when I was in downtown Dallas. It felt like a ghost town. But I believe the schoolbook depository is still there. What is it about Texas and schoolbooks anyway? Back then they altered our history. Today they keep trying to do that.
King obviously has it in for Dallas. Without apology. From the afterword:
On the day Kennedy landed at Love Field, Dallas was a hateful place. Confederate flags flew rightside up; American flags flew upside down. Some airport spectators held up signs reading HELP JFK STAMP OUT DEMOCRACY. Not long before that day in November, both Adlai Stevenson and Lady Bird Johnson were subjected to spit-showers by Dallas voters. Those spitting on Mrs. Johnson were middle-class housewives. ...
This is an afterword, not an editorial, but I hold strong opinions on this subject, particularly given the current political climate of my country. If you want to know what political extremism can lead to, look at the Zapruder film.
“11/22/63” isn’t a bad book but it doesn’t mean much. It's the wound we keep probing to no final resolution, no final effect. Plus I never really liked George, or Jake, King's main character. I kept thinking: Can someone travel into the past and not be condescending or superior? Knowing everything that’s going to happen? That’s how George comes off. The past may be obdurate but it’s also easy. The future is malleable and that’s why it’s hard.
King probing wounds to no final effect.
Five Books I Bought at Powell’s This Weekend
We didn't have much time at Powell's this weekend so I dashed to the BASEBALL section, then FILM/TV, and grabbed the following:
- The House that Ruth Built by Robert Weintraub, and the '23 season
- A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez by Selena Roberts, about You Know Who.
- Good Enough to Dream by Roger Kahn, who buys a minor league team in the early 1980s.
- Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality by Neal Gabler, which is recommended by its subtitle.
- Bernard Shaw on Cinema edited and with an introduction by Bernard F. Dukore, which sounds fascinating.
I also asked at the information desk about George W.S. Trow but they only had “Within the Context of No Context.” Then I searched under “Capote” and “Roth” and then checked out with a cashier who had a lot of tats, some beautiful. I asked her if she'd seen “Elysium.” I told her that in the year 2154, according to that movie, tats would still be popular and cool. I meant it as a kind of joke but she took it as a given. She was young.
Will used bookstores survive the digital age? I had this discussion with Patricia, and our friends Richard and Mirra, on the way out of Portland. At the least, I thought, you'd be able to get out-of-print books at a used bookstore. But then I thought, “Will any books be out of print in the digital age?”
But you'll be able to browse, I thought, and find things you didn't know existed. Like the Bernard Shaw book above, which I didn't know existed until I saw it.
Or could that be an old construct already? Today, kids might think, “No, you just go to the site and it tells you what you want. That's how it works.”
How was your weekend?
Eclectic but not really.
Recommended: Joe Muto's 'Atheist in a FOXhole'
Over the last week I've included a good half-dozen quotes from Joe Muto and his book, “An Atheist in the FOXhole: A Liberal's Eight-Year Odyssey Inside the Heart of the Right-Wing Media," which I recommend to anyone interested not only in the inner workings of FOX News but the inner workings of a cable news network.
Much of the book focuses on how things work regardless of ideology. There's also an example, just in time, on how to get a job. It's not bad advice. Basically: 1) Don't care too much about getting it; 2) Be witty. The second part is the hard part, but the first ... well, it's astonishing how often that happens. (See this Christopher Reeve quote.) The thing we fear the most meets us halfway while the thing we want the most ain't budging.
As for FOX-News? Much of what we see is what we get. Bill O'Reilly is a bully, Sarah Palin is unprepared, Glenn Beck is truly, truly paranoid. But there are surprises. Apparently, off camera, Ann Coulter is a nice person. Go figure.
Muto also does a good job of parsing the famous conservative faces. These homophobes are hardly homogenous. O'Reilly may be conservative but he's not an ideologue in the way of Sean Hannity or Roger Ailes. Ratings trump politics for O'Reilly. Money trumps politics for Rupert Murdoch. For Ailes and Hannity, politics trump all.
It's worth a read. It's also a breeze. Muto is funny and a good writer.
“Anyway, I decided, if there was anything the human race had a sufficiency of, a sufficiency and a surfeit, it was books. When I thought of the cataracts of books, the Niagras of books, the rushing rivers of books, the oceans of books, the tons and truckloads and trainloads of books that were pouring off the presses of the world at the moment, only a very few of which would be worth picking up and looking at, let alone reading, I began to feel that it was admirable that he hadn't written it. One less book to clutter up the world, one less book to take up space and catch dust and go unread from bookstore to homes to second-hand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes to still other second-hand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes ad infinitum.”
-- Joseph Mitchell, “Joe Gould's Secret.”
Joseph Mitchell, author of “Joe Gould's Secret”
The New Hollywood 10: How Stars on the Left are Punished; How Stars on the Right Punish Us
It's logical to assume there are more liberals than conservatives in Hollywood. Artists tend to be progressive, cities tend to be progressive, Hollywood is a city full of artists and artisans. And businessmen. The rub. But not enough of one.
But I've long argued that it doesn't follow that the product of Hollywood, particularly the movies, is progressive. Movies have almost always been conservative. You can sum up most action movies this way: a lone man using violence to achieve justice. You can sum up most romances this way: ...and then they got married. The movies are wish-fulfillment fantasy. That's why we go. And wish fulfillment isn't progressive; it's stagnant. It moves us but it doesn't move us.
Consider this a clumsy lead-in to a quick discussion of Steven J. Ross's book “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics.” Ross gives us nine chapters on 10 different stars and their involvement in the political scene, generally intercutting between stars on the left and stars and moguls on the right:
- Charlie Chaplin
- Louis B. Mayer
- Edward G. Robinson
- George Murphy and Ronald Reagan
- Harry Belafonte
- Jane Fonda
- Charlton Heston
- Warren Beatty
- Arnold Schwarzenegger
Hollywood may have more liberals than conservatives, but, certainly in the above scheme, it's better to be conservative than liberal.
Look what happens to those on the left: Chaplin is kicked out of the country, Robinson is blacklisted; Belafonte gives up his career for the civil rights movement and never gets it back; Fonda is pilloried for the rest of her life for a bad, 10-second photo op not of her own making; and Beatty, well, Beatty is the Hamlet of the group. He's the good actor who has trouble acting. He can't make a decision.
(All of these stars on the left, by the way, tend to be incredibly talented, and their legacy in the arts is long.)
On the right? Mayer ran the biggest studio in Hollywood's Golden Age and indoctrinated a few choice stars to the conservative cause. Heston became president of the NRA, Schwarzenegger governor of California, George Murphy U.S. Senator, and Ronald Reagan, of course, became the 40th President of the United States.
(All of these stars on the right, by the way, aren't very talented, and their legacy in the arts, Mayer notwithstanding, is puny.)
You could say the stars on the left were punished while the stars on the right punished us. Murphy, Reagan, et al., transferred the absolutist, wish-fulfillment fantasies of Hollywood to the political realm (“Morning in America”; tax cuts + increased defense spending = balanced budget; “my cold, dead hands”) and remade our society. But there's no Hollywood ending for us. At least not for the middle class. The bad guys win. We just don't see it.
Ross doesn't draw so stark a conclusion but it's there.
The saddest chapter may belong to Edward G. Robinson, who was a good guy, a solid liberal, an anti-Nazi, who was made to pay during the McCarthy era for being liberal and anti-Nazi. He was set up to serve as a warning to everyone in the community to shut the fuck up. I.e., If they could do what they did to Edward G. Robinson, what can't they do to you?
I could see a movie being made out of Robinson's chapter. Not wish fulfillment.
The dirty rats were in HUAC and Red Channels.