The primary conceit of 11/22/63 is that Jake Epping, a high school English teacher, estranged from his alcoholic wife, goes though a time portal in his friend’s diner that spits him out at two minutes to noon on September 9, 1958. Any changes that he makes (from having conversations with men in soda fountains to saving a girl who would have been paralyzed in a hunting accident) have effects on the present when he returns through to 2011. The catch is that each time he re-enters the ‘rabbit-hole’ those changes are reset. More over, the past will actually resist being changed, sometimes violently. Regardless of when he enters the rabbit-hole, he always comes out on that morning in September of 1958. So, at the outset of the novel, Jake embarks on a journey through time in an attempt to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy on 11/22/63 in hopes of evading tragedies like the massive loss of life in Vietnam that followed.
But, as with most King novels, that main fantastical hook only gets us through the front door. What keeps us there is the sense of place, the strength and maturity of the narration, and the genuine affection that he instills in readers for his main leads. Jake Epping’s story of living in the late fifties and early sixties is sprinkled with a sense of nostalgia for a world gone by. The bulk of the novel employs none of the fantastical tropes that we commonly (and often unfairly) associate with King. The main story of 11/22/63 is Jake’s journey through the years as he works up to that fateful date. He finds work, puts down roots, falls in love. All the while he observes history in action, tracks the movements of Lee Harvey Oswald as he makes his way, eventually, to the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. King is able to draw out the story in a satisfying way by giving Jake the need to close what he calls the “window of uncertainty” about whether Oswald in fact acted alone in the killing before making his move. This helps to keep the tension throughout most of the book taut.
I came away from 11/22/63 with a new appreciation for the historical potency of the early sixties. King’s imagined history is replete with references to paranoia about communism, conspiracy in the CIA, the early stirrings of the Civil Rights Movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the looming phantom of Vietnam. By giving readers Jake as a first-person narrator, King is able to very clearly lay out the context for the assassination, which I found crucial to the success of the story. Growing up, I of course knew that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, but I didn’t really have a sense of how monumental of an event that it truly was. History, as Jake points out, can turn on a dime.
I came away 11/22/63 feeling very satisfied. A book of this size that attempts to do what this book (mostly) pulls off has a very high probability of collapsing under its own weight and ambition, but King negotiates these dangers with the masterful skill that I have come to expect from him. It asks a very interesting question: if you could go back and change the world, would you? More importantly, should you? Because, as Jake learns, all too well, the past is obdurate; it does not like to be changed.
I give 11/22/63 a solid four pieces of lasagna out of five.