With more than four dozen novels and several short story collections on his resume, Stephen King is one of the most successful authors of his generation and hardly needs more validation to confirm his talent. All the same, he recently received another accolade when his latest best-seller, “11-22-63,” was selected as one of the New York Times’ ten Best Books of 2011. Maybe literary snobs and others who have rejected his work until now will now realize it’s time for a second look.
In its praise, the Times noted, “Throughout his career, King has explored fresh ways to blend the ordinary and the supernatural.”
Over the years King has been criticized and praised, but in this passage from an article in the Times Magazine in 2000, Cynthia Ozick put the debate in perspective: “Never mind all the best sellers and all the stereotypes — this man is a genuine, trueborn writer...He writes sentences, he has a literary focus and his writing is filled with literary history.”
Eight years ago when King received the National Book Foundation’s prestigious award for lifetime achievement, cranky members of the literary elite grumbled because his body of work, they argued, "had little, if any, literary value.” Much of the negative criticism faded as his career progressed and his work became more infused with grand splashes of humanity, passion and emotion, not to mention his partiality to weaving in repeated pop culture signposts that his Constant Readers (King’s affectionate term for his fans) treasure.
King was pigeonholed as a horror writer from the start but, even when he detoured, critics and some readers still shunned his work. Nonetheless, he scares the heck out of us when he tackles eerie ghost tales or other creepy elements, then can offer a riveting plot about every day horrors, such as domestic abuse, the loss of a child or a spouse or other life traumas.
Stephen King excels with long novels — “11-22-63” and three others are more than 700 pages — as well as compelling shorter stories, particularly “Different Seasons,” a quartet of non-horror novellas, including “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body.” (The latter was the basis of the hit movie, “Stand by Me.”) Though most of King’s works are packed with minor diversions they seldom seem like padding or slow down the narrative. Yet, when the story cuts-to-the-chase they prove to have bona fide ramifications.
“11-22-63,” which recently debuted in the top slot on the Times’ best seller list, is no exception. King’s time travel plot is a tactical departure and a fresh foray in the realm of historical science fiction, but it still supplies page-turning suspense that readers anticipate when they curl up with a King story.
King touched upon time travel in 1979’s “The Dead Zone.” After a crippling accident the main character wakes up with the capability of second sight and, at one point, asks the physician guiding him through his recovery, “If you could go back in time to change history, would you do it?” That inspiration prods King’s newest protagonist.
Anyone with even a fleeting knowledge of mid-20th century American history might have guessed that the title refers to the day when President John F Kennedy was assassinated. The tale also brings up the uncertainty that if we could we go back and change things, how will it affect the present?
A few previous time travel and alternate histories have effectively blended fact and fiction. My favorite is “Time and Again” by Jack Finney to whom King notes in the afterword that he almost dedicated the book. The “Twilight Zone” episode, “No Time like the Past,” written by series’ host Rod Serling, had the protagonist go back in time to alter three historic events. But, after he fails he realizes it is impossible to change the past.
With that in mind I started King’s opus, curious as to how one of the world’s most successful authors of the last thirty years would handle time travel. Early on, King makes the reader aware that each time the past is visited, there is a reset and everything achieved on the previous trip is erased, which makes his time travel credible and terrifying. After discovering a secret portal back in time to 1958, Jake Epping, an English professor in Maine, spends five years on a mission to stop JFK’s assassination, and revise the course of history. Along the way, the man, now named George Amberson, tracks Lee Harvey Oswald and meets a beautiful high school librarian, who becomes the love of his life — that sets up a secondary conflict.
King builds the tension to a nail-biting climax without scaring the heck out of us. Nevertheless, it would be daunting if the past could be changed, knowing someway, somehow, someone would use it not only for good, but evil.
Unlike private memories, November 22, 1963 is a defining moment that reshaped the national consciousness and became a collective bookmark for most Americans over 50. (A watershed event, as King calls it, like 9/11/01 is for another generation.) The date generates instant recall of where we were when we first heard the shocking news. It’s summons up Walter Cronkite’s emotional broadcast of Kennedy’s death, as well as photos of blood on the First Lady’s dress, countless images of the wounded president slumped over in the back seat of an open-roof limousine preserved in the haunting Zapruder footage we’ve seen dozens of times.
For baby boomers, King’s journey also evokes nostalgia identified by such bygone cultural icons as cheap gas for gas-guzzling American-made cars, early rock and roll on AM radio, rotary telephones with words for exchanges before numbers and frequent scenes of smoke-filled rooms before the habit was a health hazard.
One thing’s certain, if Stephen King found a portal to go back in time he wouldn’t change a thing in this marvelous, captivating novel.