During the quarantine last year, when much of the world was forced to shut down, I managed to cross off two firsts simultaneously. Number one, I read my first Stephen King book. And number two, It was the first 1,000+ page book I’ve read. It was an arduous journey — 1,153 pages to be precise. Something I never thought I would do, but I did it. It took me exactly 3 weeks; each day I read roughly 55 pages. It was a satisfying experience. In my daily midnight to 3 AM excursions, Stephen King transported me to the dreary town of Derry where several kids (and later adults) were haunted by a sinister entity. I knew it was only the beginning of my Stephen King reading experience. Earlier this month, I finished my second Stephen King 1,000+ page tome, 11/22/63. Prior to reading it, I’d read a bunch of horror paperbacks so I was feeling the need to switch things up. In addition, I had heard many great things about 11/22/63. It’s about a guy who travels back in time in an attempt to stop the John F. Kennedy assassination. But that’s just scratching the surface. There’s so much more to the book than just preventing one of history’s most infamous moments. King filled every nook and cranny with lots of heart and drama. It’s NOT a horror book, by the way, so don’t expect any creepy clowns… although… well, I’ll get to that later…
A BLAST FROM THE PAST
Right away we find out that Jake Epping, our main character, is divorced in large part because he was unable to fill his partner’s emotional quotient.
The story quickly kicks in gear when Al Templeton, the owner and operator of Al’s Diner (home of the Famous Fatburger), buzzes Jake. Lung cancer is now on the menu, and he requests Jake’s presence that very night at the diner. Not one to turn down a dying man’s last wish, Jake heads over…
Al’s Diner is home to more than just the Famous Fatburger, for deep in the pantry one might stumble across a magical wormhole. Each time you step through, it always takes you back to 11:58 AM on the 9th of September 1958. Al requests Jake to try it himself, as if traveling through time is as nonchalant as trying on a new pair of shoes. I love how King portrays Al’s desperation. “I need you to do this.” Obviously, there are more stakes at play here than just “Hey bro, check out my magical pantry! Travel back to 1958 for shits and giggles!”
After Jake returns to present day 2011, he has so many questions swirling through his mind. He cracks the code on Al’s Famous Fatburger, and how Al has been able to sell it for so cheap for so long…
Al starts going through the benefits of traveling back to 1958. He proposes that one would have to wait 43 years to prevent 9/11, and that Jake would be pushing 80 by the time 2001 rolls around. But 1963… 1963 would be less than 5 years away… manageable enough for one, hypothetically speaking, to prevent a certain assassination…
Due to Al’s lung cancer, his time is up. Jake’s time, however, is now (or then, as it were). The reason for this “social visit” becomes readily clear; Al wants Jake to go back in time to save John F. Kennedy. King pierces Jake’s soul, as well as ours, with these four haunting words: “John Kennedy can live.” Instant goosebumps!
A hell of a sales pitch indeed! Al pours it on, highlighting the ramifications beyond just saving JFK. A domino effect can also include saving Martin Luther King Jr., stopping the race riots and maybe even stopping Vietnam. After reluctantly accepting the challenge, Al gives Jake the keys to the kingdom as well as his notebook documenting key notes during his various travels to the past. This sets up the rest of the story and Jake’s journey into the great unknown.
Love King’s Easter eggs in this book!
Jake quickly learns that 2011 lingo doesn’t quite jive in 1958. It could even possibly land him in some hot water if used in the wrong circle, so Jake has to adapt to his new (old) setting and be extra careful. Similar to Marty McFly, no one can know that he’s a visitor from the future…
Another fun callback is when Jake Epping visits good ol’ Derry, the principal town in Stephen King’s It. Fans of that book will definitely recall the uptight owner, Norbert Keene.
Jake encounters several of Derry’s denizens. Part of It takes place in 1958, so how convenient for Mr. King to merge these two worlds momentarily. It’s the closest we’ll ever get to a sequel in book form.
One of the best parts of 11/22/63 is the brief interaction Jake has with Richie Tozier and Beverly Marsh. Oh Mr. King, you sly devil you. What a clever way to bring back two of your most popular characters ever created.
Richie and Bevvie weren’t the only ones to jump when Jake said “Clowns joke around a lot, too.” There are moments in any form of entertainment, whether it’s sports, movies or books, where you’ll gasp or jump in your seat out of excitement or satisfaction. This was definitely one of those moments. The Stephen King multiverse is in full effect here! Beverly follows up with a question regarding a turtle (readers of It will understand). Jake doesn’t get it, and there’s an amusing reference of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The second paragraph in the picture above shows what kind of writer Stephen King is capable of being when he is in the zone. Just beautifully stated.
Before trying to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from gunning down JFK, Jake goes on a side mission to stop someone else. I liked how he laid out the options and then broke down the pros and cons of each one.
Another callback to Shawshank
As I said, 11/22/63 is not a horror novel but it does get a bit creepy whenever Derry is front and center.
King really sells the seediness and wretchedness of Derry well.
Those descriptions of Derry…
One of the most haunting scenes from It is referenced here. If Mike Hanlon were around to read this, he would suffer a massive episode of PTSD!
I minored in theatre arts in college (holy crap it’ll be 20 years this August since my first day of college). Jake teaches in 1958 at a high school to kill time, and he also directs the school’s play, Of Mice and Men. These passages of what it’s like to be involved in a school play is, to my experience, super accurate. It makes me wonder if Stephen King was a bit of a thespian in his own day. It certainly wouldn’t shock me as these parts are written by someone who seems to have first hand acting experience. It is pretty loose early on during the earlier rehearsals. Then opening night comes and wow, everyone is running around backstage like a chicken with its head cut off. Fun times. Reading about all this certainly brought back a wave of fond acting memories. How ironic that King took me back to my own past for a bit there…
Jake Epping is flawed, yet you can’t help but root for him as he plays “Mr. Good Samaritan From the Future.” A book is only as good as how much you care about what happens to the main characters, and the ones in 11/22/63 definitely held my interest.
Love this part! What a perfect and fitting way to close the chapter on Derry in this book.
#37 made me grin. The answer is E, because Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The House of 7 Gables, not tables. You’ve got to be shitting me, indeed.
Ah, The Catcher in the Rye. I loved it when I read it back in high school some 20+ years ago. It’s definitely on my to read again list, along with other classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Old Man and the Sea, Across Five Aprils, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Lord of the Flies.
Although our protagonist soon falls in love with living in the past, King doesn’t romanticize the “good old days” of the late ’50s and early ’60s. You see a lot of the ugliness that plagued the people of that time, such as segregation and racial tension. It’s not done overtly, but it’s definitely there, and I appreciated that King did that.
One of my favorite parts!
Speaking of The Simpsons, I’ve noticed recently that the writers of that show clearly had a thing for JFK. Is that Homer there, or Jake Epping? In fact, ya know, I have never seen Homer and Jake at the same time. Hmmm…
Jake’s brutal honesty with himself is inspiring. Captivating. He admits he’s disgusted by this woman but quickly acknowledges that she is a prisoner of her time (as well as her choices). It’s a simple insight but a powerful one. As I said earlier, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns in the distant past. King wasn’t shy to remind the reader about that.
King is absolutely a fan of Ray Bradbury. Often considered as one of the greatest American writers to have ever lived, Ray’s classic short story, A Sound of Thunder, is often credited as the origin of the term “butterfly effect.” That’s a chaos theory in which the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world could create a hurricane on the opposite side of the globe.
See, King’s no doubt a Bradbury fanboy
King’s afterword also reveals his affinity for Jack Finney.
So King endorses Time & Again as the greatest time travel novel of all time, eh? [You’re fired -Ed.]. We’ll see about that, good sir! Naturally, I bought a copy immediately after reading King’s afterword. Naturally.
Speaking of time travel, after finishing the Pocket edition of 11/22/63, my copy was a bit beat up. I traded it in to a used book store, knowing that I wanted to get a good copy of the original bigger edition. The cool thing about the original big edition is the cover. Flip the front cover and you’ll see…
One day I was at a somewhat local Friends (of the Library) Book Store. If you consider a one hour drive “somewhat local,” that is! [More like
somewhat very loco! -Ed./the wifey]. Most towns have a Friends of the Library store; they’re awesome because you can get books for really cheap, or relatively cheap anyhow. They had the big edition of 11/22/63 in mint condition, but it was $10 and at the time I hadn’t yet made up my mind to get the bigger edition. Fast forward a month, I finished reading my Pocket edition and had decided to trade it in. So I drove back to the Friends store in hopes to pick up the mint copy I had seen a month prior.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. I made a beeline for the Sci-Fi section where I last saw it a month ago. Its hulk of a spine was missing from the shelf, and I was overcome with regret that I didn’t pick it up earlier. I asked the clerk if they had another copy in the back or if it was moved to another section (I was really grasping at straws at this point). He said no and that someone purchased it just an hour ago. He rubbed salt in the wound by saying, “Yeah, that one was in great condition too. You really gotta snatch it up when you see stuff like that. They don’t come around too often.” If only I was able to come the day before, or even a few hours earlier! Talk about wanting to travel back in time to right a wrong! OK, so my situation isn’t nearly as dire as the one Jake Epping faced in 11/22/63, but that’s some fascinating synchronicity there, no? Then, a few weeks later I checked their online inventory and saw that another copy of the big edition came in. I was so excited to go pick it up. This time there will be no hesitation to pull the trigger. My wife and I made the long one hour drive and as it turns out, it was nowhere near the “very good” condition the website claimed it to be. I refused to settle and bite the bullet. Thankfully I didn’t buy it, because a short week later I was at a Goodwill and found a much better copy for just $2! How’s that for some “good will” (sorry) from the universe?!
Simply put, 11/22/63 is an amazing piece of literature and probably one of Stephen King’s best. Although this is only his third book that I have read to date, I very much doubt there will be many others I will end up liking more than this one. It’s more than just a story about a guy from the future going back in time to save John F. Kennedy. There are so many themes interlaced and at play here that it works like gangbusters. Even though it’s a mammoth book clocking anywhere from around 850-1,090 pages (depending on the edition you pick up), the story moves fast and there were few lulls. I love the parts about Derry, and revisiting with Richie and Bevvie from It for a few pages was so freaking cool and awesome. Jake’s journey is captivating and you’ll root for him every page of the way. Will he save JFK after all? You’ll just have to read it to find out on your own!