The Obdurate Past: A Review of 11/22/63, by Stephen King

Welcome to 2019!  In honor of our continued traveling forward in time, the first book review of this brand-new year is all about time travel into the not-so-distant past.  As always, full spoilers are expected here.

There is a certain allure about time travel, even though it is far from the most widespread literary genre.  We all know the great classics: A Sound of Thunder, The Time Machine, Doctor Who, etc.  But time travel, while infinitely interesting, is difficult to write about.  The amount of research it requires into past events rivals that of any nonfiction.  Yet, we are drawn to it.  It is a way to experiment with “what if’s” and “maybes.”  It is also the ultimate power fantasy.  Go back in time, fix one event or stop another from happening, and you fix everything that is wrong with the world.  Who would ever pass that up?

Few events in American history are as talked about as the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963.  We learn about the Revolutionary War in history class and most of us lived through 9/11.  Much has been professionally written about every major event in the history of our young country.  But something about the death of JFK caught the public imagination.  This is the mainstay of conspiracy theorists from coast to coast, and the theories really are endless.  Maybe it was the mafia, the Russians, the CIA?  Maybe it was orchestrated by J. Edgar Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, or a cabal of CEO’s?  Or, maybe, it was Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone in a time when presidential security was nothing compared to the cynicism of the modern-day.  The assassination has captured so many people’s attention precisely because of the messiness of it all.  There is no clear motive, the killer was assassinated himself, and, like all crimes, there is random information that does not fit the event.  To many people, this was a turning point in modern American history.

11/22/63 is both a simple story and an incredibly complex one.  It takes placed over the course of five years, from 1958 to 1963.  There are many characters across multiple states, and the main character is plagued by a principle of uncertainty in his mission.  In 2011, the present day of the book, Jake Epping is an English teacher in Maine.  He lives a lonely life.  Meanwhile, Al Templeton, the owner of a diner in their small town, discovers the rabbit hole in the back of his diner.  A portal to 1958.  Every trip takes exactly two minutes of present-day time, however long you are gone, and every return to the past is a reset.  He always returns to the exact same moment in 1958.  At some point, Templeton decides to the prevent the Kennedy assassination after convincing himself that the president’s death was the cause of decades worth of troubles, but contracts terminal cancer mere months before the event itself.  He recruits Jake to return in his stead, live through five years in the past, and stop Lee Harvey Oswald.  Jake goes, taking the name George Amberson, and gives up five years of his life to right the course of history.  If only things were that simple.

Jake actually takes two shorter journeys into the past before committing himself to the mission.  The first time is just an exploratory trip to prove that time travel is real.  The second time is an experiment.  Jake and Al decide they need to know what effect stopping a murder would have on the timeline.  In all time travel stories there is a threat of reality breaking down around the characters.  Jake is very aware of other time travel stories.  On his second trip, Jake journeys to the fictional town of Derry, Maine, and this is where Stephen King’s extended universe comes into play.  Famously, Derry is the setting of It, which introduced the world the terror of Pennywise the clown.  In Derry, Jake tasks himself with preventing a multiple murder and saving a man he knows in the present from irreparable brain damage.  But the past is obdurate and wants to proceed along fixed lines.  Bad luck follows Jake as he starts down the path of changing events.  Nothing that ever shows a conscious will.  Cars break down, plans go awry, people take notice of more than they should.  Just bad luck.  During this trip, Jake is only partially successful, but does prevent the man’s brain damage, only to return to the present and find out he perished in the Vietnam war.  The past also harmonizes and finds ways to right the ship.

Jake’s third trip is the start of his true journey.  He journeys back to 1958 once more armed with all the knowledge of the present and begins his slow trip down to Dallas.  He has five years to live and prepare for the moment and needs to be absolutely certain that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.  If he prevents one man, and another takes the shot, the entire would have been wasted.  It is also apparently obvious to everyone he meets that he is an outsider in some way.  Jake is a 21st century liberal.  He does not share the racism and sexism of the past and reminds himself of a colored bathroom in Georgia every time he finds the past too comfortable.  A hole behind a gas station, covered in stinging nettle.  Yet, the past calls out to him, and Jake aka George Amberson finds a life.  He returns to teaching and falls in love with Sadie Dunhill.  This is a woman he loves so dearly that he decides to forgo his life in the present entirely once the deed is done.  Sadie becomes so integral to his life in every way but has her own tragedies to deal with.  But the past is obdurate and will throw anything it can at Jake to stop him, including the murderous, insane ex-husband of the woman he holds dear.

Jake’s life with Sadie is one cornerstone of the novel.  His relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald is another.  The two men never actually meet until the finale, the day of November 22nd, 1963, but Jake comes to know him very well.  While Oswald lives in Texas, Jake becomes his neighbor.  At first in the house next door.  Then in the apartment beneath his.  Jake plants listening devices in the Oswald home and learns everything he can about Lee Harvey, his wife Marina, and their infant daughter June.  The Oswalds are a dysfunctional family.  June is innocent.  Marina met Lee Harvey when he defected to the USSR and returned with him to the United States.  Lee Harvey tries to prevent her from learning too much English, make friends, or express a will outside of his communist fanaticism.  Lee Harvey, meanwhile, is not treated kindly.  He is pompous, prideful, unnecessarily cruel, and petty.  He rants about the evils of capitalism and beats his wife.  Even without knowledge of the future, he is a horrible human being.  Everyone he meets looks down on him and his friends do not stick around long.  But 11/22/63 also humanizes him.  He genuinely loves his daughter and seems to know that he ruins everything he touches.  This is not the type of man who seems like he should be able to murder the president of the United States.  Until he does just that.

Like all great time travel stories, and most time travel stories in general, Jake Epping succeeds in his mission.  He saves Kennedy, at the cost of Sadie’s life.  As always, the ramifications of a success far outweigh the danger of letting the past continue as planned.  The past is obdurate and will find a way to course correct.  Jake returns to the present and learns about the end of the world.  But he also returns to the present with the knowledge that he lived a good life with Sadie, and she with him.  He needs to return to 1958, reset the clock, and save the future.  He does it, and in the process erases his relationship with Sadie Dunhill.  But this novel is not really about preventing an assassination.  It is a love story between these people who manage to find each other across times and across timelines.

11/22/63 can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 12 days

Next on the List: The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang

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