11/22/63 is the tale of one Roy Winston, a successful real estate agent, who comes into possession of new evidence in the assassination of President Kennedy. The FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the Cubans, and the Russians all vie for control of this evidence, and Roy is thrown into a world of…
…What’s that? That’s not what the book is about?
Right you are, of course. The above description is for 11/22/1963: New Evidence by Roy Widing. I mistakenly read about half of this on the Kindle before realizing my mistake. In my defense, the Kindle came to me pre-loaded as a gift, but I somehow convinced myself the different-author's name on the menu screen was either a glitch or referred to something else, the way an iTunes or Windows Media menu selection will sometimes list the publisher/ author and not the artist in the artist-column.
I'd like to think I'd have realized the mistake sooner had I had to take the physical book off the shelf every morning, but, as you Kindle readers out there know, once you move past the menu page, each power-on/power-off takes you to the last page you read. Unless you make a point to go back to the menu page, in other words, you can miss the author's name once and never see it again, if you're just charging through the text. As I was.
First World Problems, as the kids say today... or, perhaps just a McSpace-Cadet Problem. As the percentage-completed bar moved along the bottom of the screen, I started wondering both when the time travel was going to come into play and how the hell I was getting through it so fast. Also, why characters were speaking in such un-King ways. (Lots of characters spending half a page hanging up a phone, i.e. “Anything else?” “No.” “I'll speak to you soon.” “Good.” “Goodbye.” “Goodbye.” And speaking aloud, i.e. “The first thing I have to do is call a lawyer,” Roy said aloud.) Not to mention the general And now I'm attacked by the Russians! sort of stuff. Nothing against Mr. Widing's style or story - it's fine for what it is, it's just not King. The tone really struck me as “off,” while reading. Well, no wonder!
I'll get to the King novel momentarily, I just wanted to say I am in no way trashing Widing's book. He didn't, after all, set out to write a Stephen King book, so my reaction going through it proceeded from false premises. If you like JFK-fiction/ordinary-guys-caught-in-spy-suspense sort of stuff, it's a fine read. I admire the self-publishers of the world and wish him and the book all success.
With no further ado, then...
THE PLOT: Jake Epping, a recently-divorced Lisbon Falls, ME schoolteacher who is “not a crying man,” is recruited by Al, the proprietor of a local diner that has a portal to the past in its stockroom, to travel back in time and assassinate Lee Harvey Oswald. Al has taken extensive notes on Oswald's life and fervently believes preventing the JFK assassination will save hundreds of thousands of lives and change the world for the better. Jake accepts and as “George Amberson,” steps into the past (the time portal opening always onto the same day in 1958) armed only with Al's Oswald notes, a suitcase filled with silver-certificate dollars, and a list of sports-winners from '58 to '63.
|Shades of Biff Tannen from Back to the Future II, that last part.|
Before I go any further: I managed (as my Roy-Widing misadventures illustrate) to steer clear of almost all spoilers for this book, so let me say: if you have any inkling to read this book, please read no further. I won't be offended, and if you're anything like me, you'll enjoy discovering how the story unfolds for yourself. It's a great book, and not knowing how things turned out kept me reading at a feverish pace. I'd hate to dilute the same experience for you, but there's little point in my discussing it here without revealing key twists and turns.
Still with me? On with the show, then: Jake (as George Amberson) ends up in Jodie, TX, where he keeps eyes on Oswald in Ft. Worth while teaching first part-time then full-time at the high school. He ends up making friends and falling in love. (I'm skipping a lot of the sub-plots, here, not because I didn't like them - I actually loved them and think they're the heart of the novel - but just to keep it moving)
“The past is obdurate,” Jake notes throughout, and it seeks to protect the universe from unraveling by throwing everything it can in Jake's way.
|He succeeds, nevertheless, at his mission...|
but at great cost. Sadie (the woman he meets, with whom he falls in love, and who ends up a full partner in his mission) is killed, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Each trip to the past creates a new “harmonic chime” that didn't exist before. The more pronounced the chime/ changed event, the stronger the repercussion. By saving Kennedy, he discovers upon returning to the present, he's doomed the world to dissolution. Earthquakes, nuclear fallout, political chaos: the world, like a pane of glass beset by a thousand powerful tuning forks struck at once, is shattering. All of the positive changes he and Al hoped would result from saving Kennedy do not come to pass. “Bombay never became Mumbai. What it became was radioactive ash in a cancer-wind.”
To save the world, therefore, he must travel again to the past, which acts as a “re-set.” He does so, and the timeline is restored. Jake, now no longer “an un-crying man,” travels to Texas to see Sadie on her 80th birthday, and he asks her to dance.
Dancing is a major theme of this book. Which, given the other themes of the book, brought to mind the Nataraja, i.e. Shiva's dancing form. For a quick summary, see here.
Time travel is theoretically possible in the realm of quantum physics, and as noted QP author Fritjof Capra in his fascinating book The Tao of Physics (which I read on one horrendous bus journey from Georgia to Ohio several years ago) “every subatomic particle not only performs an energy dance, but also is an energy dance; a pulsating process of creation and destruction…without end…For the modern physicists, then Shiva's dance is the dance of subatomic matter. As in Hindu mythology, it is a continual dance of creation and destruction involving the whole cosmos; the basis of all existence and of all natural phenomena.” Someone more learned in Hinduism should dissect the book from this angle; I imagine it would be quite illuminating.
“Who killed Kennedy? Can't you see that it was not me? I wasn't here in 1963!” - Boat Chips, Richard Nixon? (1999)
When it comes to the Kennedy assassination, you're talking to a guy who has a postcard from Dealey Plaza tacked to his cubicle wall at work. * You're talking to a guy who watched all nine hours of Evidence of Revision. You're talking to a guy who watched an entire three-hour lecture by Jim Marrs author of Crossfire: the Plot that Killed Kennedy filmed from one static angle off-stage, which is like watching a Powerpoint presentation from the hall, or something. All of which, so far as knowing anything about “what really happened,” means nothing, just that it's been a hobby of sorts for years. More than a hobby: the 60s assassinations in general - from JFK's to RFK's to Malcolm X's to the tens of thousands of the Phoenix Program, (these days they call it “the disposition matrix”) as detailed in Alan Moore's and Bill Sienkiewicz's Brought to Light (aka The Secret Team) or Bill Moyers Secret Government - are essential American history and a pivotal foundation of my political worldview.
* Certainly not because of any ghoulish anti-Kennedy stance or anything, just have been fascinated by the various conspiracy theories ever since I saw JFK in 1991.
So, you'd figure I'd blow my top at all of the above being dismissed out-of-hand by King in this story. “Nah, Oswald acted alone; if you think differently, you wear a tinfoil hat” is more or less his position in the afterword. (Amusing, too, since he admits his wife believes there was a conspiracy; I hope she slapped him upside the head for that one.) But, you'd figure wrong. I mean, if the Warren Commission is a work of fiction, a) I'm hardly a “man in the know;” I'm just some guy, b) King is free to think anything he damn well pleases, naturally, and c) well, 11/22/63 purports to be nothing but a work of fiction, so, what difference does it make? My only concern reading this was if the story worked, not whether or not King's position on the Kennedy assassination dovetails with my own.
|Sure it would have been a blast for such a high-profile author as King go even deeper into the shadowy world of George DeMohrenshildt...|
This isn't really a novel about the Kennedy assassination. I mean, it is, certainly, but it's less about who really killed him and more about our interaction with the past, nostalgia vs. reality, and the dance of spacetime. Not to mention just the idea of time travel itself. As such, it has more in common with Hot Tub Time Machine than it does with something like Don DeLillo's Libra.
|Quite a different take on Oswald in this one.|
But, before moving on, I will go on record as saying Occam's Razor i.e. that famous axiom that states “All things being equal, the simplest explanation is probably correct,” something with which I nine times out of ten agree and that King quotes a few times as rationale for his approach, is not the most apt axiom to keep in mind when thinking about JFK/ Oswald.
The problem is precisely the “all things being equal” part of that equation. If only they were/ had been!
The problem is precisely the “all things being equal” part of that equation. If only they were/ had been!
I couldn't help but think of “City on the Edge of Forever” a few times while reading this story.
|Not only are several of the plot points similar, it also involves the sacrifice of the main character's one-true-love upon the altar of changing the future for the better.|
|One of the most intriguing time travel tales of the last few years is this Spanish film, Los Cronocrimenes. Just wanted to mention one of them; there are, of course, hundreds.|
It's easy to see why time travel stories have such a hold on our dreaming unconscious. The tug of What if...? is powerful, probably as powerful as the suspicion that if we could go back and change something, we'd somehow make things worse, no matter how carefully we plan things out.
|All right, one last Trek reference, damn it. (Tapestry, ST: TNG, s6, e15)|
As an entry in the time travel fiction genre, 11/22/63 is as solid as they come. It evokes both the pleasure (real soft drinks, Elm trees, trust and politeness as something to be expected...) and the poison (...so long as you're Caucasian, that is; sexual repression, etc.) of the late fifties and early sixties. As a love story, it touches your heart; the end has real pathos, and the epilogue, “Citizen of the Century” (suggested, according to King, by his son Joe Hill) is as moving as anything King has ever written. As an engaging narrative, for me, it's first-rate. Some reviews I read suggest too much time is spent fleshing out Jake/ George's time in the past. We see him putting on school plays and touching kids' lives and placing bets and buying spy equipment, etc. With all due respect, these readers are mistaken. Not only are these plot points pretty-unsubtle-manifestations of the themes and motifs of the larger story (all the world's to me a stage and we are merely players, as someone (ahem) once said) they also play to King's greatest strength as a storyteller: his abiding interest in people over plot, of taking his time and letting the reader settle into a setting, of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
One quick thing - in the days following Jake/George's saving Kennedy, an earthquake hits Los Angeles, killing thousands. My first thought was to wonder what Hollywood/ baseball luminaries would've been among the victims and whether or not King looked through such a list to make sure no one was taken out whose absence would cause problems for the plot. I then went cross-eyed... Time travel is hard, man.
SOME GREAT QUOTES IN THIS ONE
Too many to include but here are a few:
|“Moxie, that weirdest of sodas.”|
“Living in the past was a little like living underwater and breathing through a tube.”
“Explanations are such cheap poetry.”
“'Yeah, but what if you went back and killed your own grandfather?'
(Al) stared at me, baffled. 'Why the fuck would you do that?'”
“Stupidity is one of the two things we see most clearly in retrospect. The other is missed chances.”
“Humans were built to look back; that's why we have that swivel joint in our necks”
And has King ever so poetically and comprehensively summarized the theme of one of his works as he does with the following?
DARK TOWER CONNECTIONS?
- Upon returning to the present, Jake sees a Takuru Spirit, a car familiar to any Dark Tower readers. (He does not, unless I missed it, see any evidence of Nozz-a-La soda.)
- The chimes throughout and the “thinnie” of the time portal reminded me of Todash.
- Naturally, Vermont Yankee (a nuclear power plant) exploded on June 19th, 1999.
- I couldn't help but wonder if the ending of Ur, where the Low Men visit Wesley Smith, confiscate his Ur-Kindle and scold him for interfering with the timestream, came to mind while plotting/ writing this one. It almost works as an alternative-ending to 11/22/63, one which would place it more conspicuously in the Dark Tower verse. Just a thought/ speculation, certainly not something I felt was missing or anything.
For more on the Dark Tower connections, check out this interesting discussion over at The Truth Inside the Lie.
THE YELLOW CARD MAN
Outside of the portal in Al's diner, we meet the Yellow Card Man, so called for the color of the card tucked into the band of his hat. We learn at novel's end that this character is a guard (of sorts) to the portal, but proximity to the harmonic-strings-in-flux scrambles his brains. As Jake returns to the past, the color of the card changes, first from yellow to red...
|In football, of course, a yellow is a warning; a red is hit the showers.|
... and then from red to black, when Jake discovers the Yellow Card Man dead on his second-to-last trip to the past. Jake speculates that the color represents the state of harmony (or disharmony) of the guardian's mind vis-a-vis the correct timestream.
I'd very much like to read this story of the same name by Paolo Bacigalupi. I imagine some fun parallels to 11/22/63 await discovery therein, but I could be wrong. Either way, (chime).
From Kev’s review:
“Most interesting for readers – aside from running into some favorite (and least favorite) characters from It – is witnessing Derry from an adult perspective in 1958. While It never glossed over the dangers of its child characters, readers experience their adventures through the mostly naïve eyes of children and, later, through the sheen of nostalgia. An adult from 2011 (and, maybe more importantly, an outsider), Jake Epping quite adeptly senses the past Derry as a Bad Place, as tinctured with bad feelings and intent as The Overlook in The Shining, the Marsten House in ’Salem’s Lot, or the eponymous Black House. In this way, 11/22/63 becomes a more vital continuation of It than either Insomnia (set in Derry and featuring an older Mike Hanlon) or Dreamcatcher (featuring the ominous graffito PENNYWISE LIVES.)”
Interesting. Though, I must confess, I didn't see Bev's and Ritchie's appearance as adding all that much to the plot, here. It is perhaps the only section I'd cut. It doesn't ruin anything, just doesn't add much, for me.
Great book. One of the King's best, to be sure.