A Review of 11/22/63, a Novel by Stephen King
"During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." George Orwell
Among those who pay attention to all things Americana, there are basically two camps: those who believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone as the assassin of John F. Kennedy, thirty-fifth president of the United States, and those who believe only an orchestrated conspiracy could have pulled off what is often called the crime of the century. Whenever or wherever the subject comes up, there are sure to be mixed and even emotional reactions. The event, although now dated forty-nine years in a fading past, can still raise hackles and blood pressure. Somehow, Stephen King manages to avoid those reactions in his latest effort, 11/22/63, even though he definitely believes Oswald was on his own.
Although this reviewer fully admits to falling into the opposite camp, the story King tells is compelling and a pleasure to read. It is different from King’s other works. Not in rhetoric or style – the same easy-going flow is there along with the familiar references to American culture that King so often uses to great effect – but in that the story is not a horror story. It is a time-travel tale and it is a romance, but it is also a story that fulfills that oft-wished-for “what-if” scenario. In this case, what if we could somehow go back in time and change events in an effort to relieve resultant pain and suffering, in an effort to make the world a better place. What would happen?
As Jake Epping, aka George Amberson, protagonist of 11/22/63 discovers, the past is obdurate. It doesn’t want to be changed and doing so causes ripples which can quickly result in unplanned effects, few of which seem to be good. But Jake does find a number of treasures, not least of which is a romance with Sadie Dunning, who provides a love at first sight encounter that develops into a raison d’etre for the 21st century drop-out. Jake also finds a way of life in the past that seems truer, less harried, and more poignant. As he discovers after first stepping back to 1958, even the simple taste of a cold root beer is deeper and more satisfying than what he is accustomed to in 2011.
King does not belabor the point about who committed the crime of assassination, but he does hold the reader in suspense for the greater part of the book, a feat in itself considering the story winds out to a total of 849 pages.
There is much consideration on King’s part about the consequences of changing the past and how the ripples of change might affect the future. These are all well-thought out and when the author does bump into the inevitable paradoxes, he handles them with his wonderfully dexterous imagination. When that isn’t enough, he simply lets his character say what any one of us would say when confronted with an unsolvable mystery: I don’t know how it works, but it does. His descriptions of North Texas in the early sixties are excellent and he captures the feel of the time as if he were there himself. I know because I was.
One of the chief complaints of Under the Dome was the political bias King displayed. 11/22/63 indeed contains a bit of that as well, but not nearly as much, and so what anyway? After all, it is the author’s prerogative. In my estimation, 11/22/63, does not come across as an argument to convince the reader about what did or did not happen on 11/22/63. Rather, it explores the notion that whatever occurs in our lives is understood by the acceptance of events, that even as harsh as reality can be, it is the way it is intended to be and there is consolation in that knowledge.
11/22/63 is a wonderful book by one of America’s great modern-day authors – not to be missed.
As an afterthought, author King fully admits even his own wife, Tabitha, is more aligned with notions of conspiracy when it comes to the JFK assassination. Additionally, the ten-month investigation by the Warren Commission from 1963 through 1964 concluded that President Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone and that Jack Ruby acted alone when he killed Oswald before he could stand trial. These conclusions were initially supported by the American public; however, polls conducted from 1966 to 2004 found that as many as 80 percent of Americans suspect there was a plot or cover-up.
The United States House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) was established in 1976 to investigate the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the shooting of Governor George Wallace. The Committee investigated until 1978, and in 1979 issued its final report, concluding that President John F. Kennedy was very likely assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. However, the committee noted that it believed that the conspiracy did not include the governments of the Soviet Union or Cuba. It also stated it did not believe the conspiracy was organized by any organized crime group, nor any anti-Castro group, but that it could not rule out individual members of any of those groups acting together.