Tuesday Review: 11/22/63 A Novel – Stephen King
Full disclosure: I am a fan of Mr. King. I have read everything he has written and seen every movie adaptation and made for TV adaptation (wretched as some of them are) and I even own a T-shirt from his radio station, WZON, when it was a rock station. I am NOT his biggest fan (readers of “Misery” will be glad to know this) but I am willing to believe I am in the top 100.
That said, I know that King has written both good and bad novels. I am not so blind as to not know that some of this man’s prodigious output was probably done, if not for a paycheck, at least for less than Pulitzer Prize hopes. But hey, even John Lennon once said “Let’s write a swimming pool.” King has admitted to (and written about extensively) drug and alcohol addictions when he was writing and I am sure they must have had some influence on his output, good or bad.
The problem with being Stephen King is that he has long ago been pigeon-holed into a genre. Call it horror or science fiction or whatever you want to call it he has, when he strayed from form, been castigated by his critics. Sometimes he has been raked over the coals even when he is at his best. Critics don’t like authors who sell millions of copies. They don’t like authors who have regular output. They don’t, by and large, like Stephen King.
Kings’ previous novels in the last few years, including especially last years “Under the Dome”, which was more or less straight Sci-Fi, have started to show some maturity. Even working in that genre King was showing signs of being more capable than ever before of putting a bit more into the work. A bit of heart, a bit of soul. A big bit of morality.
11/22/63 continues the trend and is a delight to read because of it. Not a delight in that the subject matter isn’t dark and sinister much of the time. But the story is told in such a way that you are left to think about life, the quality of mercy and the human condition. Tall order for a book about time travel.
I have read many, many stories and books about time travel. I have seen all the “Back to the Future” movies. For my money the best serious author to deal with the idea of time travel was Kurt Vonnegut in “Slaughterhouse – Five: The Children’s Crusade” where Billy Pilgrim becomes ‘unstuck in time’ and travels back and forth without control.
But in this case the travel back in time is less a curiosity than it is just something to be dealt with, like an everyday occurrence. This is a strength of King’s by the way. To turn the fantastic and sometimes terrible into something believable. He is very good at it.
Spoiler alert: The story hinges on Jake Epping going back to the 60’s from 2011 to prevent the Kennedy assassination. He meets and falls in love with a girl, loses the girl to a shot by Lee Harvey Oswald but saves JFK. This turns out to not be such a good thing and he has to go back and fix everything again. In the end he reconnects with the girl in one of the books most touching moments, which King credits in the afterward to his fellow writer and son, Joe Hill.
There are monsters in this book. Most of them walk upright and are in the guise of humans but they are monsters, none the less. Oswald is one. Some of his “handlers” are others. Oswald’s Mother is as big a monster as I would ever care to meet. And as Epping travels around the country in his bid to meet his destiny and prevent the events of 11/22/63 from occurring he meets many more.
Another monster is Dallas, Texas. King even admits that some have accused him of treating the city unfairly but both he and I think his characterization of Deep South 1963 was spot on.
What really shines in this novel is King’s ability to breathe life into the characters and to make their lives jump off the page. He has done this before (See Randall Flagg in “The Stand”) but never so well and with so many different characters. Even the bit players in this epic are given full treatments and it marks King for me as a writer headed for a place among the masters.
11/22/63 is a whopper of a novel. It weighs in hardcover 3 pounds and comes in at 849 pages. That said, for me it made a great vacation read. I began it Thanksgiving day and finished it in five days (and nights). Be forewarned. At some point in the last 200 pages you will not be able to put it down. Time it better than I did, for it made for a very late night when I HAD to finish it.
I often find myself wondering when I read a book what kind of film it would make. Movie makers have yet to hit the right note when taking King’s material to the screen. Even the great director Stanley Kubrick lost his way in making “The Shining” which should have been so much better than it was. Most of the King book to film’s are excrement, even those screenplays that King wrote himself. I think the reason for this is that the monsters King writes about are more scary in our heads than even the best director and the most sophisticated special effects can produce. And in many cases his directors and special effects have been far from the best (see “Maximum Overdrive” which King must have done in a daze) and often are so bad as to be laughable.
This novel would be a challenge but could be done. There is certainly enough archival footage that could be manipulated à la “Forest Gump” to make it believable. The real problem, as always, would be casting.
Nicolas Cage as Jake Epping?
Johnny Depp as Oswald?
It would be very interesting.