Jake Epping is a thirty-five-year-old high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching adults in the GED program. He receives an essay from one of the students—a gruesome, harrowing first person story about the night 50 years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a hammer. Harry escaped with a smashed leg, as evidenced by his crooked walk.
Not much later, Jake’s friend Al, who runs the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to 1958. He enlists Jake on an insane—and insanely possible—mission to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination. So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson and his new world of Elvis and JFK, of big American cars and sock hops, of a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and a beautiful high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill, who becomes the love of Jake’s life – a life that transgresses all the normal rules of time.
This book is long. Really, really long. But, it’s also pretty decent in the end. My first experience with Stephen King was his novel Insomnia which was an incredibly slow burn for the first 600 pages until the action started. With 11/22/63 the action started much more quickly and really got me hooked, but then things slowed way back down for the middle 500 pages. I’ll admit, that made me a bit sad, but the reward was a pretty decent ending with a few unexpected twists and turns.
Time travel is the big idea in 11/22/63, specifically time travel that sends a person back to the exact same place at the exact same time every time they go. If you travel back in time, then return, then travel back again everything you did the first time will have been wiped clean and everything starts over. It’s an interesting twist to the more common time travel conventions and I thought it added a little more weight to what Jake Epping was doing when he traveled back to 1958. As long as he didn’t make a mistake everything was fine, but if he did slip up, or things didn’t go as planned he had to start all over. That’s fine if you’ve only been in the past for a few weeks, but if you’ve been there for five years that’s a lot of time you’ve lost.
You see, the person doing the time traveling continues to age, they don’t get a reset like the rest of the timeline does. Consequences upon consequences as Jake Epping certainly discovers on his own.
Having the ability to travel back in time to change things for the better is a fairly noble cause on the surface, but of course, changing something in the past changes the future. It’s all very complicated if you ask me, but the basics are fairly understandable. The bigger the change you make to past events, the bigger the change you will see in the present day when you return from your journey. So, given that, what do you think is going to happen when Jake Epping travels to 1958 lives life until 1963 and then attempts to prevent John F. Kennedy from being assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald.
BOOM! Consequence nightmare if you ask me.
For a large portion of the book, Jake Epping (also known as George Amberson in the past) manages to keep his impact on the past fairly minimal. He sticks to himself for the most part, keeps his friendships on the up and up, and works hard to make choices that don’t change the choices others will make. In what seems like a smart move on his part he observes Lee Harvey Oswald from the shadows and he stays away from Dallas until the last possible time to keep his waves to a minimum.
As a result he meets Sadie Dunhill who seems to be the perfect fit for him. Personally, I found the entire stretch of the novel where Jake is in his relationship with Sadie before he finally gets to the action of heading to Dallas to be a grind. I liked the characters and I certainly liked the things King did with them as a couple, but a lot of the time it felt like I was slogging through a novel-length stretch of filler material.
Those stretches of “filler” type stuff in the two King novels I’ve read are probably what’s stopping me from finding his writing to be as spectacular as everyone else seems to think it is. I find his writing to be superb in quality, but his storytelling to be not much better than most of the other mainstream authors I read. I truly thought when I finally started reading King I was going to fall in line with everyone else and think his work was a step or two above everything else, but I simply havent. Perhaps I will someday, but not quite yet.
The next Stephen King book I read is almost certainly going to be the first book in The Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger. It’s much shorter and fits in with my genre tastes much more closely. Perhaps that will be the key to unlocking Stephen King for me.
Length: 884 pages