The short summary of 11/22/63 is probably self-evident upon sight of the cover and the title; the front of the U.S. edition is a faux newspaper article about JFK’s assassination, and the back an equally invented article about his surviving Oswald’s attempted assassination…and yes, that is basically the point: our protagonist travels back through time in order to prevent JFK’s death that day in Dealy Plaza.
But should he? Well, fans of various time travel and alternate history genres have been debating that since not so very long after the death that’s pivotal to this novel.
Jake, an English teacher at the local high school, is drifting through life after his divorce from his first wife, a recovering alcoholic; he doesn’t mind his job but has been doing it long enough that he’s beginning to find it a bit repetitive. The central story arc begins when Al, owner of the local diner, asks Jake to help him with a project. Appalled at Al’s apparently sudden ageing of some ten years (and concomitant fatal lung cancer), Jake agrees if only to get Al to sit down. Here’s where it gets interesting: there’s a “rabbit hole” into the past, a time tunnel leading from the supply closet of Al’s diner to the parking lot of a weaving mill in 1958. Take the tunnel as often as you want, and spend as long as you like (allowing for the natural aging process while there!); upon your return, you’ve only been gone two minutes, and when you go through the hole again, pop! you’re returned to the exact same moment in 1958.
Al, dying, begs Jake to go back to 1958 and track down Lee Harvey Oswald in order to kill him before he offs Kennedy on that fateful day in Dallas. Jake agrees, but tests the waters first with a test “historical alteration”: he goes through in order to prevent the father of the disabled high school janitor from attacking his family forty years before, during which attack, all but the janitor himself died. This is successful, more or less, and Jake goes back through the rabbit hole, armed with several thousand dollars of period-appropriate money, a false identity and a notebook full of information about the period and Oswald’s movements. He settles in and creates a life for himself, there in 1958, to wait the five years until the events for which he is there actually take place.
Before I get into the analysis part, let me just point out that, as with Dan Simmons’ two books, The Terror and Drood, I finished this book in a thoroughly rapt 24 hours….and yes, this is fast reading, even for me. I mean the kind of rapt that has me wandering, Magoo-like, with the book crammed up to my face, bumping into light posts and telephone poles with no more than an absent apology. I do have a couple of criticisms, but keep this paragraph in perspective, when I say that 11/22/63 kind of fails in terms of the alternative history and the time travel standpoints…but I don’t think that’s really the point. Or at least that’s not why I enjoyed it.
The alternative history is weak, in comparison to, say Kingley Amis’ The Alteration or Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, because we don’t find out much, relative to the length of the book, about this dystopia resulting from Kennedy’s not only surviving his first term but being reelected for a second. To compound the problem, I don’t quite buy that so many of the societal shifts and legal innovations in the sixties rested on the shoulders of one man, or rather the absence of same. Just as an example, Johnson was influential in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to say the least, in his role as President…but it was Kennedy’s idea to begin with.
The time travel wasn’t much explained either; all we get is a glimpse of it through the “green card man” who replaces the “yellow card” man. There are a few touches I like: how do you support yourself if your credentials are forty years in the future? never mind all your technical skills. “Bet on sporting events to which you already know the outcome” seems plausible enough, at least until our protagonist runs afoul of the local mob, which quite rightly guesses that he has advance knowledge of an event which has not yet occurred, though they’re wrong about the source. I do, however, appreciate the difficulty with which Al and Jake encounter in their attempts to change even minor events in the past. Flat tires, dead batteries, traffic jams. Stomach flu, migraines, beatings. The pre-existing timeline throws all manner of delays in the way.
This skimming over the underlying explanations does allow King get on to the meat of the book: is it possible to change history, and would we want to even if we could? Even when they are successful, the ‘butterfly effect’ ensures that the result isn’t necessarily what they’d hoped for. Jake’s first attempt at altering history on a small scale shows that clearly: when he returns, he finds out that Harry was killed in Vietnam…forty years prior to his death in the baseline time stream. I’ll avoid giving away the real ending for those who haven’t read the book, but it’s similar. Think “The Monkey’s Paw”.
What is the book about? I’ve always thought that one of King’s strengths as a writer is his ability to create such thoroughly ordinary settings. This highlights the horror and/or supernatural elements in his other novels; getting trapped in a supermarket by giant mutant spiders? Gah! Still gives me nightmares. Here the ordinariness is the growing relationship between Jake/George and Sadie, and it’s a real and loving one. If this were the book, leaving out the attempt to prevent Kennedy’s assassination, I would have adored it wholeheartedly. What would you do to save your loved one? Bring them somewhere from which they could not return? Sacrifice your own life? What?
Might this have been improved by shortening it? Yes; I found Jake’s first attempt at changing history much more touching than the central one, because it was more personal to the protagonist; he knows Harry, and has a much more intimate knowledge of the janitor’s past. It meant more to Jake, and therefore to me, and so therefore therefore might have worked as the pivotal plot point. (It’s a nice touch, though, that King refers to the antagonist as “Lee”. Think about it.) The ending seemed rushed, and overly simplistic; it’s all too obvious that Jake must go back through the rabbit hole and reset events—the changes wrought in the timeline as a result of Kennedy’s surviving Dealy Plaza do not counterbalance the loss of his own personal lady love.
If you liked Jack Finney’s Time and Again and From Time to Time, you might like this; Finney’s novels touch on the very ordinariness of life as well. If you like compare-and-contrast time travel and alternate history stories, this might be fun too.