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.
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