What would you do if you could go back in time? That simple question has fuelled not only thousands of classroom discussions and late-night inebriated monologues, but also an entire subgenre of speculative fiction.
It also fuels 11/22/63, the whopping, stunning new novel from Stephen King. For King, though, time travel comes with some peculiar limitations.
The time portal that high-school English teacher Jake Epping is shown, in the pantry of a grotty roadside Maine diner, only goes to one time: early fall, 1958. It's a simpler time, in many ways. A purer time. Food tastes richer. Men wear hats and keep their hair short. The textile mill is still running and America is prosperous. Every re-entry into the portal, every return trip, starts at exactly the same moment: Time, it seems, resets itself.
Each trip – no matter how long the traveller spends in the past – takes only two minutes of present time. Which explains how Jake's predecessor, Al, who owns the diner, ages almost five years overnight, developing a case of lung cancer that is both terminal and end-stage in the hours since Jake saw him last. Al explains that he has spent almost five years in the past, building evidence (which he documents in a handy dandy blue notebook) against Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone gunman in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Convinced that Oswald acted alone, Al was preparing to stop the assassination, but the cancer prevented him from literally pulling the trigger.
Al enlists Jake to finish his crusade, arguing for the potential improvement of the world were Kennedy to survive his trip to Dallas: An early withdrawal from Vietnam, a quickening civil-rights movement preventing the race riots of the early 1970s and the survival of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King are only the most compelling of the arguments. Without time to prepare himself (Al is dying, and the diner is going to be closed and destroyed within weeks, the portal with it), Jake journeys to the past, taking on the name George.
With five years to live before the assassination, George … lives. Armed with a list of sporting results, he builds a nest egg through taking long-shot bets. He tries his hand at writing, working on both a novel and the chronicle of his time, within which the reader is – by that point – deeply immersed. And he teaches, sending away for credentials from a mail-order college and faking references to get work as a substitute English teacher.
He also attempts to rewrite history in little ways, preventing a multiple murder that shattered the life of a man he knew in the present day and divert a hunting accident that would have crippled a young girl. As he attempts to change the past, though, he discovers the truth of Al's warning: "The past doesn't want to be changed." Every plan to save someone goes awry, or is blocked, seemingly by the past itself. Flat tires and fallen trees are the very least of it. Al's cancer, it seems, might not have been caused simply by his three-pack-a-day cigarette habit; it may, in fact, have been the past actively foiling his attempts at change.
So what does this mean for George and his attempt to prevent the Kennedy assassination? That's the question that hovers over the long middle of the book, as Jake settles into a small Texas town and begins a mostly clandestine relationship with Sadie, a fellow teacher. The past is not happy with George, and his idyllic life is marked with violence and tragedy and a steadily escalating tension as the calendar pages flip past.
King is not writing in full-blown horror mode in 11/22/63. Rather, this is an intensely character-based novel, full of small moments and details, surrounding larger philosophical questions. While it lacks the narrative nitro-fuelling of early novels such as The Stand and Salem's Lot, the slow intimacy of the story is just as compelling. One can see the pieces as they start to click together, as George's life slowly comes apart.
11/22/63 will thrill long-time King fans. The book, with its emphasis on the past, on the "harmonies" of George's life that look like coincidences but are, in fact, manifestations of the butterfly effect and the past's reluctance to change, resonates through King's oeuvre. It's not just that Jake's first stop in the past is Derry, Maine, in the fall of 1958, after the summer of murders documented in It (the scene where George meets Richie Tozier and Beverly Marsh made the hair on my arms stand up) or that the novel as a whole is invertedly reminiscent of The Dead Zone, in which John Smith spent a novel building up to assassinating a presidential candidate. It's also the little things, echoes of King's books threading unobtrusively through the heaves and struggles of the past. For example, George is haunted by a car, a red-and-white Plymouth Fury, the same colour and model as Christine.
You don't have to be a King fan to be delighted by 11/22/63, though. You don't have to be a horror fan, even. The novel is a narratively thrilling, thoughtful, character-centred journey into the heart of the American dream. It will have you laughing and leaning breathlessly over the pages. It will make you stay up past bedtime, and it will make you cry. What more can you ask of a book?
Robert J. Wiersema's Walk Like a Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen, has just been published.