Thursday, November 10, 2011

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Photo: 11/22/63 book cover from its Wikipedia page

Inner ear infection the last three days, so one of the only things I could do laying in bed is read, and that only barely.  So I read this much-anticipated book.  I have mixed emotions and thoughts about it, so...let's break 'em down.

The Good:

Well, it's gotta be a good sign that I read 849 pages in essentially two days, and about 750 of those today (Wednesday) alone.  King's detractors will say that this is bad, that nothing serious enough to be written by one of the best-selling authors of the 20th Century should be that quick and easy to read.  While this smacks of elitism to me, I smell a tiny scent of truth, but then again, King never said he was Nabakov or Shakespeare, and while it's true that this novel, like most of his, doesn't have depth, per se, it does have resonance.  (Much like the harmonies he writes about, one supposes.)  Besides that, it's a good read, for a few reasons:

1.  It was nice to see Bevvie Marsh again, and Richie Tozier, too, I suppose.
2.  Astute fans will say hello to Christine (there's a '58 Plymouth Fury in a few places here, and it ain't nice), Cujo (by reference to nice but rabid dogs) and to the gateway keepers in Hearts in Atlantis and in Insomnia, as well as the town of Derry itself, which was never right in its head.  There are shimmers of The Dark Tower series (especially the most recent) and God knows what else, too.  There's a tiny nod to Back to the Future, too.
3.  King mixes and mashes Derry, Maine and Dallas, Texas in artistic ways similar to Desperation and The Regulators, as well as the mirrored characters in both.
4.  The book is ultimately about love won and lost, and a lovely scene of (odd, but it works) love at the end that is very similar to the ending of Edward Scissorhands--and not about time warps, or paradoxes, or any of those things.  Frankly, he doesn't handle those topics in any way that we haven't seen already.

Which leads me to

The Bad:

Mostly, what I just said: There isn't much in here about time travel, paradoxes, messing with time, harmonies or shimmers or whatever that we haven't already seen before.  And, maybe, better, elsewhere.  In fact, if the reader doesn't fall in love with Sadie (which this reader did), then the book falls apart at the seams.  But, to King's credit, you will love Sadie; I think the logical planner in King realizes that she is watermark here, and that he loses us if he loses her.  So, of course, he doesn't.  Like Juliet, Sadie seems to deserve better than the guy she falls for.

There's also no question at all about what will ultimately happen to her, or to Jake/George, which is both bad, and good, considering that you are compelled to read on despite this.  There's also no question about what'll happen when Jake/George goes back to the future (there's the nod), which King also correctly realizes and spends no more than a few pages on--and his character spends just an hour in the future close to the end.  But, again, despite all this, you read on, which is the ultimate good for writers and readers alike.

The only question is: What will he do, if anything, to set things right again?  I guessed it right, mostly because, as a writer myself, I couldn't imagine the character doing the whole thing all over again (there's another nod to the last Dark Tower), but you want to resolve the George/Sadie thing, too, which he does.  Or, at least, according to the Afterword, his son, Joe Hill, does, and King just writes it.  But, whatever.  It's satisfying and it works, despite borrowing heavily, I suspect, from Scissorhands--and it was Joe Hill's idea, to boot.

And so you get the idea.  It isn't The Stand, or It, and we'll have to agree that such high points may not be reached again.  (King himself thinks that The Stand, The Shining and Salem's Lot, out of all of them, will stand the test of time.  I mostly agree, except not for the Lot, which will be eclipsed by the Dark Tower series, by It, and by Different Seasons.)  But 11/22/63 is also not The Cell, Rose Madder or Under the Dome, either, so that's all good.  (Under the Dome is severely overrated.)  It's not existential fodder, either, as there is no grey area with its depiction of a future with a JFK who's lived--or of its depiction of 60s Dallas, either, for that matter.  It's a s--thole, clearly, and it better be undone.  Fast.  Luckily, every re-appearance is a quick reset.

Ultimately I gave it five stars because I read its 849 pages in about 48 hours, which has to be testament to the book's quality, or to my reading stamina, or both.  I'm a writer myself, and if someone told me he read my 849-page book in 48 hours, happily engrossed in its story as he recovered from an inner-ear infection, that would make me perfectly proud.  To relate: A friend of mine, who can be a very good, if not occasionally harshly helpful, reader and critic, read my 11-page zombie story recently--very, very quickly and, as it turned out, appreciably.  Never in a million years would I think that this fine poet would devour and appreciate my 11-page zombie story, but he did.  And I can't think of a better compliment to a writer than that.

And so there it is.  I'll leave you with one more thought, just realized: Sooner or later, King will have to be appreciated for his whimsical portrayal of 3-dimensional female characters who are all too easily appreciated or fallen in love with by his male readers--from Sadie, here, to an adult Bev Marsh in IT, to a feisty Wendy in The Shining (who was NOT a sniveling Shelley Duvall) to Carrie White, in a way, to Charlie McGee in another odd way, and even to Annie Wilkes, in a VERY odd way, as well as a few others in between.  Don't get me wrong, there were some real clunkers in there, too, but overall he is very good, if not entirely realistically good, at this, and I haven't heard anyone say so before.  Woody Allen (rightfully) gets tons of kudos for his developed female characters, and while they are in a different stratosphere than King's, there is still a consistent solidity to them after all these books and years.  And The Woodman's women aren't exactly completely realistic, either, right?


  1. When I first heard about this book I was skeptical. I know, I know, how could I be skeptical when it is a Stephen King novel. But it just isn't something I ever expected from him. Of course, the whole time-travel things sounded like something much more King-like and it is honestly what initially drew me to this novel. I must say that I was totally ensnared by the end of page one and I quite literally could not stop reading until the book was finished. What begins as a surprisingly believable time travel story about stopping the assassination of JFK, quickly becomes much deeper as King effortlessly weaves a story about love and the fear of losing what little time we have here on earth, and King rouses fear within the reader with this. I won't spoil anything, but the result is simply brilliant.

  2. Luxembourg, I agree with you. I think King realized early on that his time-travel hugger-mugger (as Stevenson called the potion in his JEKYLL AND HYDE) wasn't going to ensnare the reader, that he needed something else. Using the theme of love and lost is always in-demand! He handled that well, especially considering that there should never have been any doubt about the fate of the female lead. King's done that many times, most notably with Mattie Devore in BAG OF BONES.

    Thanks for commenting!