Note: Although I've tried to steer clear of major plot spoilers, this review does contain information not found in the book's description at amazon.com. If you'd rather not be spoiled, feel free to read the book first, and then come back for my review!
First, a confession, and a little history:
Before I comment on the novel, I'd like, in the spirit of full disclosure, to confess that this is the first of Stephen King's fiction that I've read. The only book that I've read by King was his On Writing and even that I only read within the last year.
My first encounter with Stephen King was when I was in college. I was home on some summer vacation, 2002, 2003, I'm not sure exactly when, and on television I caught a live(?) broadcast of Mr. King speaking at a college commencement. I was impressed with what he had to say and, even though I did not run out and pick up one of his books, it stuck with me.
My second experience with King and the first time I'd been exposed to any of his fiction, was during An Evening with Harry, Carrie, and Garp. I have had the privilege of growing up in the New York City metro area and, in 2006, a few months after I'd graduated from college, I was lucky enough to get a ticket, in the nosebleeds of Radio City Music Hall, to see J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, and John Irving give a reading.
Again, full disclosure, I was there primarily to see J. K. Rowling. It was, for me at least, the height of Pottermania, and I paid $40.00 or whatever it was, hoping she would reveal some snippet, some hint of what was coming for Harry in Book 7. At that time, however, she had just only selected the title of the final installment of her epic series.
As it was not the focus of my attendance at the event, I don't remember exact details or what he read. To be fair, I can't remember what John Irving read, either. Still, I was impressed with King's work. Obviously he knows a thing or two about writing, or he wouldn't be selling all those books. I have never been a fan of the horror genre, so I never thought to seek his work out. But I remember recognizing what he read for the quality writing that it was.
When I started taking writing classes in January 2010, I finally, with encouragement, sat down and read On Writing, which changed my life and opened up my eyes in ways that deserve their own separate review.
My thoughts on 11/22/63 by Stephen King: Parts 1 through 3:
The first thing I noticed when I began this book was how comfortable the tone felt. It was like easing back into my favorite chair by the fire, assuming I had either a favorite chair or a fire by which to read. The language is inviting, almost as if the first person narrator says "Hi, I'm Jake. Let me tell you a story."
As a writer, I'm impressed by the seeming effortlessness of the writing, which I can only assume means it must have been a lot of work.
11/22/63, so far, is the story of Jake Epping, an English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine who is recruited by Al, the proprietor of Al's Diner, into a plan to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
This is to be achieved through the use of a portal in the diner's storage area which leads from Lisbon Falls, Maine in 2011 to Lisbon Falls, Maine in 1958. Jake's mission is to appear in Maine in 1958, and stick around five years to prevent the Kennedy assassination.
First, though, he needs to learn how time travel works in this universe. Al has left him a wealth of notes on Oswald, and told him that no matter how long he spends in the past, when he returns to 2011, it will be two minutes later than it was when he left (although he will have aged accordingly to however long he spent in the past). Additionally, each time he returns to the past from 2011, everything he did has been reset, except for the cash he has. Still, Jake must learn what effects changing the past will have on the future.
To do this, he attempts to save the lives of the family of Harry Dunning, who were brutally murdered by Dunning Sr.
As Jake learns, the past does not always want to be changed and, in many ways, becomes an actual character as it tries to thwart Jake from achieving his goals.
I must say I am enjoying this book every bit as much as I had hoped I would. I did not know what to expect from a King novel, never having read one, but I've been awestruck by the ease of his prose and the clear cause and effect nature of his plot which, after the extremely character-driven novels of A Song of Ice and Fire, is a Godsend. 11/22/63 is by no means predictable, and yet I have a clear sense of how one event leads to the next and how each scene fits into the grand scheme.
I like Jake Epping as a protagonist. He's a little older than I but still young and I would be interested in his experience of time travel. King's version of 1958 evokes a sepia-toned photograph in my mind. It's not a perfect world. You can see that racial tension is present; even if it's not the focus of his novel, it's there. There's an infectious nostalgia for this bygone era nonetheless. I found this particularly impressive as I was born decades after the setting of this novel. Of course, the dirt-cheap prices of everything from gas to soda is probably enough to make anyone nostalgic.
Based on what I've read so far, I'm eager to finish 11/22/63 and expect I will continue reading King's work in the years to come. There will be another post coming on or around January 31 when I finish the novel but if you're a fan of Stephen King, time travel, or fiction concerning JFK, I would encourage you to visit your local library or bookstore and pick up a copy. I'm willing to bet you won't regret it.