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11/22/63 by Stephen King

Wow. What can I say? This book was a thrill, a wild joyride, emotional and tender, thoughtful, had me on the edge of my seat. I guess I’ve not bothered to seek out Stephen King (aside from one book I read for the horror section of my genre fiction class in grad school, From a Buick 8, and a short audiobook for a car trip, Stationary Bike) because I don’t have much use for horror; but of course he does more than horror, doesn’t he. There are reasons why he’s a mega-bestseller, and this book illustrates several of those reasons very well.

I’ll back up a bit and give you the premise. Jake Epping is an English teacher in small-town Maine in 2011. His alcoholic wife has just divorced him in favor of a man she met at AA meetings when Al, of the local Al’s Diner, calls him up. Al has aged 10 years overnight and is clearly dying, like right now, but how can this be when Jake just saw him yesterday looking healthy if chubby? We’re thrown into the weirdness immediately as Al sends Jake through his diner’s pantry, and through the rabbit hole, into 1958. This strange loophole through time always takes a visitor back to the same moment in 1958, and no matter how long one stays, he’s always gone just 2 minutes in 2011. Al has returned from 1962 with terminal cancer. He tried to make it to 1963 to stop the Kennedy assassination, thinking to prevent as well the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the tragedy of the Vietnam War, and – why not? – all the bad since then, too. But now Al is out of the game, and with very little instruction, Jake is in it.

I’ll go ahead and tell you that Jake takes on the challenge, because I don’t feel it’s much of a spoiler. (This book runs over 800 pages; something had to happen.) But I won’t tell you much more. This is a suspenseful ride through time and history with the most serious of potential consequences. It’s awesome. Jake is an awfully likeable character, very human, fairly well developed, with good intentions but human weaknesses as well. There is definitely some humor in his preordained knowledge of the past; and before you go thinking he can see everything’s future as he travels through 1958, and onward, across the United States, remember (as Jake will remind us) that he’s an English teacher, not a history teacher. In particular, the regular people he meets are beyond his future-sight, as he didn’t study up on them beforehand. And it’s the little people, the regular folks he comes to know in the Land of Ago, that will turn out to be important to Jake. How could it not be so? He’s just a regular folk himself.

As my mother (who read this book first and prompted me to do so; thanks Mom) pointed out, King is not terribly poetic or lyrical in his writing style. (For the exception that proves the rule, see my recent Teaser Tuesday.) But not all books have to be poetic, and this one loses nothing for it’s more straightforward style. What King does right is build characters, make us care, paint the world of the late 50′s and early 60′s so completely that we taste and smell it. The storyline is fabulous, and this book is a page-turner; if only I had started it sooner during my week off work I might have tried to do it in one or two sittings!! As it was I stayed up past my bedtime on a work night to finish it.

The history and culture of the past is great fun; the characters are engaging; the action is suspenseful. This book is fun and exhilarating and I highly recommend it! Go ahead and add it to my Best of 2011 list. (See, I knew I was jumping the gun…)

12 Responses

  1. Sounds like a great one. How does he write so many long novels?

  2. YAY!!!! I am so excited that you loved this one! I could not put it down and loved every page. There were even points in which I got a little choked up; I fell for Stephen King’s world that he created, and loved all of the characters immensely. I only wish that I had read more of Stephen King’s other works because apparently he will bring a character back into another book for a brief page or two, and SK fans love it when he does that. You know the two teenagers who are practicing the Lindy hop? I’ve been told that they are primary characters from another book (not sure which one). And the town of Derry is a town featured in another of his books as well. I wish I had read more of his books so I could feel that excitement to see a character from another book make its way into something else. I guess I’ll just have to read more of his work in 2012! I have read ‘Salem’s Lot which was incredible, but I need to pick up more of his work.

    So glad you loved this book, too!

    • Sounds like you have your work cut out for you in reading his whole canon! Good news: plenty to read; you won’t run out soon! I totally understand your enthusiasm. It was indeed great. And I understand the excitement about finding known characters in another book. I think that’s the same thrill of familiarity we feel when we find a book set in our hometown, naming streets we know, etc. Fun.

  3. @ Natalie, I agree with you, i was pulled into his world right away. I heard on the radio the other day, The Book Report, they spoke about the book if you want to have a listen go to http://www.bookreportradio.com/archives.html

    • My mother commented on how much branding there was, and I think she was ambivalent about it. But I think all the product mentions helped create the world as well as he did. No doubt he pulled off the immersion of his readers in 1958 etc.!

  4. Ok, I’m ready to speak for myself (‘mom’).
    First, as to style, I meant to say that the style is uncomplicated and unpoetical. It is straightforward and clear. I never stop to consider how beautifully he portrayed a scene or emotion. Think Hemingway for godsake. Very right-on, on-the-mark, workmanlike. (I have taught composition, and can appreciate not being beat around the block with wordiness and prose which calls attention to itself.)

    The branding is very noticeable and perhaps distracts the first time or three. In the end it’s really about scene-setting. The cars, the Banlon shirt that Al tells him to buy, these resonated with me because I recognized them, but even when I didn’t I felt sure that they were right for the time.

    Lindy hop I don’t know, but wow! that scene rocked. How about the words to “Honky Tonk Woman” finding their way to 1960?
    I agree that it belongs on a best of the year list.

    • I guess I wouldn’t have thought to compare King’s writing style to Hemingway’s, although I see your point; to me, Hemingway is poetic while being simultaneously brief and functional. Poetic not lyrical? Whereas King is just straightforward. But I grant you some similarity. I do believe Natalie, too, is a fan of both; no coincidence, hm?

      I didn’t recognize the brands at all of course but they contributed to the world-building; I think we agree there, too.

      Thanks for stopping by, Mom; guess I’ll take this as your guest post contribution here. :) Merry Christmas!

  5. [...] these two DNFs within a week of reading my two most recent additions to the Best of 2011 list: 11/22/63 and The Home-Maker. So maybe everything else pales in comparison. At any rate, I’m sure [...]

  6. [...] you can refer back to my premature Best of 2011 post of December 1, to which I’ve since added 11/22/63 and The Home-Maker, for an unwieldy list of 22 (!) books I loved this year. What can I say, [...]

  7. [...] Roosevelt’s death, HUAC… it was so very dense. I was reminded of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (which is the more recent work), another novel set in real historical events that successfully [...]

  8. […] count is not always a problem – I would like to point to Stephen King’s outstanding 11/22/63 at 850 – but here, George could have written this plot up in 400 pages rather than more than […]

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