When you write a book about a time traveler attempting to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, you’re taking a big risk. The book has to end with President Kennedy still dead, so the only question left is whether the journey to the inevitable conclusion is worth it.
With Stephen King’s “11/22/63,” the answer is yes – but just barely. The book is 843 pages long, and I’m not sure that it needed to be. While each individual section stands well on its own, at the end it feels like the whole adds up to a little bit less than the sum of its parts. Early on, King establishes that “the past is obdurate” – it doesn’t want to be changed, and it will throw roadblocks up in the way of anyone who makes the effort. By the end, I had lost count of how many times that had happened, but whatever the number, if you’ve lost track that means it was too many.
On the other hand, I have to admit that the somewhat leisurely pace that the novel unfolds – the time portal leads back to 1958, so Jake Epping (who becomes George Amberson in the past) has a lot of time to kill, and a lot of time to plan exactly how he’s going to pull off the feat of the century without getting caught or killed in the process. And since the portal leads to Maine, there is time to spend in the familiar town of Derry, and time to try and change some bad things that happened there before heading on to Texas for the big one.
The longest section in the book tells the tale of Epping/Amberson’s years in Texas, gathering intelligence on Lee Harvey Oswald but also starting a life of his own in the small town of Jodie, just outside of Dallas. While there, Amberson meets people that he comes to value a great deal, including one with whom he falls deeply in love. And all of a sudden, he is wondering whether he has it in himself to finish the job that he came to do.
To give away more would probably spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I’ll just say that, as with the best books by King, some of the most effective moments tend to be the smaller ones – a chance encounter with some young kids in Derry who we met many years ago in “It,” the way a man’s wife thanks Amberson, who she instinctively sees as a guardian angel, for spending an afternoon playing cards with him, and the way a couple looks at each other as they share a dance in front of a bunch of unruly teenagers.
So how does King handle the ending? About as well as one could, I think – it’s a very sentimental ending, sad and uplifting at the same time. And at that moment, you care more about Jake/George than you do about the fate of President Kennedy. Which is why the book counts as a success – even if it did take a little long to reach its destination.