November 1, 2011
Mystical doorways have been a recurring element in Stephen King’s fiction from the beginning. “I Am the Doorway,” published in Cavalier in 1971, is about a former astronaut who becomes a doorway for an alien presence. The painting Rosie McClendon buys in Rose Madder is a portal to another reality, and the Black House sits at the juncture between two worlds. The trunk of the Buick 8 is a gateway to another place, the miners in Desperation, Nevada accidentally breech a wall that separates our world from another and the scientists at the Arrowhead project may have caused another such rupture in “The Mist.” How could the Colorado Kid have made it from Denver to Maine without using a magic door?
Most notably, there are magical/technological doorways throughout the Dark Tower series. Some allow people to jump from one place to another within the same time and reality, whereas others let them to go to specific times and locations in other universes. One such portal links Fedic in Thunderclap to Dallas (November 1963), allowing time travelers to witness the JFK assassination.
In 1973, King had an idea for a novel called Split Track about a man who goes back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination. He wrote about fourteen single-spaced pages before abandoning it. The research required for such a novel was too daunting for someone busy teaching high school. He also thought the wound of the assassination was too fresh in people’s minds.
King doesn’t keep an idea journal. The good ones stick with him, he says. This one persisted. In a letter printed in Marvel Spotlight in 2007, while discussing concepts for graphic novels, he outlined a plot based on this thirty-year-old idea, though some details are different from what happen in his latest novel, 11/22/63. As a testament to the idea’s general appeal, Jonathan Demme acquired the film rights well before the novel was published.
Al Templeton calls the magical portal in his Lisbon Falls diner a “rabbit hole” instead of a doorway. It is an unnatural bubble in time that could collapse at any moment. Several rules govern the kind of travel this doorway affords. Anyone going through it always ends up at the same spot in Lisbon Falls at the exact same time: 11:58 a.m. on September 9, 1958. Regardless of how long that person stays, he always returns two minutes after his departure. And, most important of all, if he—or anyone else—goes back into the past again, any alterations made to the timeline on a previous trip are undone. Every time is the first time, as far as the past is concerned. That’s what Al believes, anyway.
Each week, Al buys the same batch of ground beef over and over at 1958 prices. This explains how he can sell his burgers at prices that make many locals suspicious of their contents. On some of his trips, he proves that he can alter the past, which starts him thinking about watershed moments in history: the killing of Archduke Ferdinand, the failed assassination attempt on Hitler, 9/11. The only one within his reach is the Kennedy assassination. However, unlike the Fedic portal, his rabbit hole won’t transport him conveniently to Dallas just in time to witness—and, perhaps, prevent—the assassination. The distance isn’t much of a hurdle but he would need to spend five years on the other side. If he makes mistakes and is forced to go back and try again—like reaching a dead-end in a computer game and having to start from the beginning—he may grow too old to succeed. Or too sick, which is the case here. Before he reaches 1963, Al comes down with terminal cancer. He needs someone else to accomplish what he couldn’t.
Enter Jake Epping, Lisbon Falls High School English teacher, one of Al’s longtime customers. Jake is an all-round nice guy, cut from the same cloth as the pre-accident Johnny Smith from The Dead Zone. He takes serious interest in his students and cares enough about people to listen to their stories. Outside of teaching, though, he doesn’t have much of a life. He’s thirty-five and divorced, living a life of quiet desperation in a house he shares with his cat. This is a chance to do something that matters.
Although Al has demonstrated that changes to the past affect the present, Jake needs to see it for himself. One of his former GED students wrote an essay about a personal watershed moment that happened in 1958. Jake travels back in time to find out what will happen if he interferes with that incident. The mission takes him from Lisbon Falls—past a “vintage” Plymouth Fury that King fans will recognize—to Derry, where he has a charming interlude with two familiar characters practicing the lindy-hop in a scene that is worth the price of admission alone. “Dancing is life” is Jake’s mantra, and it will play an important part in other relationships he forges in the past.
During his two months in Derry, he learns that the city is an ugly place with many dark secrets. Though his mission is only a partial success and has unforeseen repercussions, Jake is convinced to give Al’s wacky proposition a try. Save Kennedy and he might prevent the Vietnam War and the positive changes will cascade from there.
Al has done a lot of legwork, producing a thick binder of research materials and amassing enough pre-1958 currency to finance the mission. Time is of the essence, though, because the diner won’t be where it is much longer and the bubble may collapse when it goes. With no time to do his own research, Jake takes the plunge and returns to 1958.
Though he can take a short cut when he goes back to Derry to repeat and improve upon his previous mission—which has, of course, been reset by his returning to 1958—he can’t drive straight to Texas and execute Lee Harvey Oswald. Oswald will be in the Soviet Union until 1962. Besides, Jake needs to prove that Oswald was acting alone and not part of a conspiracy. Otherwise, killing the self-proclaimed patsy won’t change anything. Spending the rest of his life in prison for murder isn’t in his plans, either.
Al’s research materials include the outcome of sporting events, allowing Jake to place bets to supplement the cash Al provided, but he has to be careful not to draw attention to himself. The so-called butterfly effect means that everything he does during the next five years could send ripples of change down the timeline. He has to tone down his contemporary speech patterns and avoid careless references to things that don’t yet exist. Most of his slip-ups go unnoticed…but not all.
He learns that time is a peculiar business. Familiar names keep popping up over and over, a phenomenon of harmonics he calls “doubling.” And the past is obdurate—resistant to change, throwing hurdles in his path whenever he sets out to do something that will have serious implications for the future.
With time to burn, Jake goes to Florida, where he rents a shack on the beach and works on a memoir (the first person text of 11/22/63), and a novel inspired by his impressions of Derry. He also acquires a mail-order degree in English using his cover identity, George Amberson, and becomes a substitute teacher until July 1960, when he leaves town before a suspicious bookie tries to kill him.
When he gets to Dallas, he discovers that he doesn’t like the city. It has a dark veil that reminds him of Derry. He can’t imagine living there for three years. It’s a little too much like staring into the abyss.
He moves to the small town of Jodie, south of Dallas, where he is less likely to attract unwanted attention. He takes a job as a high school teacher and, much to his surprise, falls in love with the librarian. This romance is one of the book’s greatest delights, and the driving force behind much of what happens toward the end. Jake and Sadie’s relationship is fraught with complications, though. His mission would seem crazy to anyone from 1958, so he has to keep it a secret, which means that he can’t explain to Sadie—who is still smarting from an abusive marriage—the reason for his frequent trips to Dallas to reconnoiter the major players and locations and gather intelligence. While 11/22/63 is often a fast-paced and harrowing thriller, the outcome of Jake’s various crises matters much more because readers care about what happens to him and Sadie. Otherwise it would be simply an academic exercise in alternate history.
The amount of research King performed while writing this novel is impressive. He recounts some of it in the afterword, including details of his trip to Dallas with his researcher friend Russ Dorr, and more is related in a recent Wall Street Journal profile and in a video that accompanies the enhanced eBook. Everything about 1958 rings true: the pervasive cigarette smoke, the enhanced taste of everything, the lower stress of daily life.
Jake crosses paths with a number of historical figures during his time in Texas, including Oswald and his family, and other players who may or may not be involved in a plot to kill the president. Though politics play a part in the book, 11/22/63 isn’t overly political. A few characters express their opinions from time to time, but people familiar with King’s political stance need not fear that the book is a bully pulpit for them.
The closer Jake gets to the Book Depository on November 22, 1963, the more daunting and deadly the obstacles thrown in his path. Some are of his own creation, but they mostly come from the timeline’s self-preservation instinct. One future has already happened, and some force wants it to happen the same way again. If Jake fails—and survives, which isn’t a given—he has the option of trying again, but that would mean another five-year commitment, and he’s not sure he has the gumption for that.
But what if he succeeds? He and Al assume that things will be better for the America of 2011 if Kennedy lives, but this is an unproven hypothesis. The one thing Jake knows is that if he wants to see the outcome he would have to leave the world of 1963, never to return. That means he will have to leave behind the relationships he established during his years in Texas. Is that a price he’s willing to pay? Are there alternatives? Though King is sometimes faulted for the way he ends his epic novels, he pulls off a thoroughly unexpected, satisfying and touching coup with the finale of 11/22/63.