Book #26 for 2011: 11/22/63 by Stephen King
A friend mentioned to me the other day on Facebook that it seems like all of Stephen King’s recent books are ones that he started to write when he was young but never got around to finishing. That’s true; the note at the end of 11/22/63 says that he started it in the early 70s but realized that it was far too ambitious for him to write at that stage of his career. (Actually, that would have been around the same time he wrote Carrie, so for all practical purposes he had no career yet, except as an obscure author of short horror stories.) He says much the same thing at the end of Under the Dome. And those final volumes of the Dark Tower series he wrote a few years ago are effectively the continuation of something he began writing when he was in college.
My take is that this has a lot to do with that car accident that nearly cost him his life a decade ago. He almost says as much in the introduction to one of those last Dark Tower novels, with an anecdote about a woman coming up to him at a book signing and saying, in effect, “Thank God you didn’t die! I was afraid I’d never find out how the Dark Tower stories ended!”
I think King has realized that he’s at a crucial juncture in his life, where he’s still at the peak of his talents and still has all his wits intact, but that if he doesn’t write the works that were too ambitious for him as a young man they may never get written. So he’s buckling down, working with a research assistant (the same guy for the last two books; he gets an acknowledgment at the end of both), and making an honest attempt to write the best books he’ll ever write. On the basis of the last two, I think he’s succeeded.
11/22/63 is a spectacular book; so is Under the Dome. Yet they are very different works. Under the Dome is industrial-strength melodrama and pulled me in more forcefully than any book has in years. It’s as readable as anything King has ever written. 11/22/63 isn’t quite as much of a page turner, but it’s a deeper work, written with a level of personal feeling that a lot of King’s novels lack. The early King book that it reminds me of the most is The Dead Zone, in that both novels are about driven men, star-crossed lovers, visions of the future and political assassinations. And both have a sense of tragedy to them. 11/22/63 has an ending that’s more bittersweet than completely tragic, but the notes at the end suggest that this may be because his son, novelist Joe Hill, was the one who came up with it. (It’s hard to tell just how King would have ended it without Hill’s ideas, but I suspect the finale would have been more bitter than sweet. Or simply would have ended with less of a sense of closure.)
It’s probably not necessary to mention that 11/22/63 is about a man who finds a hole leading back in time and uses it to attempt to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald on the eponymous date. What may be news is that the book is as much or more about the life of its protagonist, a man who spends most of its pages living in a time before he was even born, as it is about the Kennedy assassination, though there’s a great deal about Oswald in it and the book paints an interesting picture of a man who has become over the years more a figure of myth than a character out of history. (This, I think, is one of the things that Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Weidman were getting at in their surrealistic musical Assassins and there’s a scene in 11/22/63, where the protagonist dreams about a carnival barker suggesting to Oswald that he kill the president, that may be a direct nod to the Sondheim show.)
I think, though, that in many ways what 11/22/63 is is an homage by King to the period during which he was an adolescent. King is three years older than I am and would have been 11 in 1958, which is the year that the time hole leads to, and 16 in 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated. He describes the “land of ago” (as the protagonist calls it) with a certain degree of loving sentiment, acknowledging its flaws while simultaneously seeing it through the eyes of a child. I was around back then too and I’m not convinced that root beer really tasted better in 1958, but if King thinks it did, who am I to argue? (He may be right that cream was thicker and creamier.) I also don’t remember the world of the past as smelling that much worse than the world of today, though there were industrialized patches of it that did and King may have known some of those in Maine.
The end of the book brought tears to my eyes and it’s hard to believe there are any readers of any age who wouldn’t react similarly. Granted, it wasn’t hard to figure out during the last 100 pages or so where King was headed — I guessed the broad outline without getting the details — but it’s the details that matter. I think he may lean a little too hard on the time paradox thing and could have had a similar ending without need for the “Green Card Man,” but I like his idea of the past as something that fights attempts to change it and that can injure, maim or even kill anyone who tries. There are some slow patches in the middle of the book but I think that’s because King isn’t really writing a suspense thriller here; he’s writing something more deeply sentimental and personally meaningful. Slow patches or no, the last 100 pages are as readable as anything from Under the Dome and if these should turn out for some reason to be the last two books King writes (which I certainly hope they aren’t), they’ll stand as a terrific monument to a writer who could have started resting on his laurels and royalty checks two or three decades ago yet just insists on becoming better and more ambitious instead.