The Historian’s Dispassionate Gaze: The TFT Review of Stephen King’s 11/22/63

What if you could go back in time and single-handedly avert a monumental crisis that changed the course of history?

Don’t worry, there are no spoiler-alerts in this TFT review!

Answering this oft-posed question would subvert and demolish the immense pleasure of reading 11/22/63, Stephen King’s new epic, published sagaciously on the cusp of Zeitgist awareness that in two years’ time we will observe the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The ghost of America’s greatest homegrown philosopher, John Dewey (1859-1952), inventor of pragmatism, (and a Vermonter, I must add) obviously whispered his memorable credo into the ear of Hampden, Maine novice writer Stephen King four decades ago: “The local is the only universal.”

For his life’s work, King has hovered over, walked through, lived in, speculated about, exhaustively described, dissected, and, of course, ultimately loved, a resolutely-generic small town in Maine going by different names, but always coming to rest as the same richly-revealing place, “a burg off the main road that nobody cares about much, except for the people who live there.”

11/22/63 begins in just such a town — Lisbon Falls, Maine — where present-day high school English and Drama teacher Jake Epping is led to a dim staircase in the pantry of an outmoded diner, down which he crosses a portal that takes him into 1958, and to Derry, quintessential small town of King’s lifelong fears and fantasies. From there, by way of prelude to the larger cause, and urged on by the desperate pleas of a dying friend, Jake takes on the mission of preventing a horrific family mass murder – only to end up in Fort Worth and Dallas in the fateful years leading up to our blood-drenched national cataclysm.

Thanks to King’s prodigious imaginative and narrative gifts and — more crucially — to his lifelong hunger for a lost childhood world, we are drowning in a time of hula hoops, Lindy Hops, five-cent Cokes, jukeboxes, tailfins, back-seat necking, country stores, five and dimes and antique shops, bicycling newspaper boys, amiable dogs, good manners, smiling little old ladies, hitch-hiking, and Technicolor nostalgia.

The perverse counterpoint to this dreamy landscape comes in the hot, dry litany of names and locations with darker resonance: Dealey Plaza, the Texas School Book Depository, Parkland Memorial Hospital, and Love Field. All are revisited and described with haunted fidelity.

Assuming his new name and identity for “The Land of Ago” as George Amberson, inexperienced but doggedly-persistent gumshoe, Jake rents a couple of seedy apartments and hunkers down for three creepy, voyeuristic years with the obsessive purpose to stake out Lee Harvey and Marina Oswald, then intervene at the appropriate instant to save the future of mankind.

However, true to form, the past, “turning on a dime,” as King likes to say, throws its own obstacles across George’s path. The first is through the sweet, engaging personality of a “good-looking in an artless what you see is what you get American girl,” a willowy, witty and affectionate fellow-teacher named Sadie Dunhill with whom our hero falls hopelessly in love.

And love – as those of us familiar with Stephen King’s oeuvre already know – has a way of conquering all.

The other, more ambiguous impediment to George’s mission has to do with how the memory of the past becomes corrupted – or “compromised,” to use a current cliché – when you are actually in the past. This syndrome is hard to explain, of course, unless you have had the opportunity to occupy the past in the first place. Through a series of temporary obstructions to his momentum, George finds out the hard way that what he knowingly calls “the obdurate past” itself does not “know” its own future…the future toward which George is hurtling.

Remember, TFT Reader, no spoiler-alerts. So that’s all I’m going to say about that.

11/22/63, weighing in at 849 pages, is a lumbering juggernaut of a book. No need to be daunted by these numbers. It has all the gravitas of a Greek tragedy; we (think we) know what is destined to happen – and yet, are surprised and shocked when it actually occurs.

The tumultuous denouement of the story includes some harrowing set-pieces, as when George actually meets and locks eyes with “the man who was going to blow off the right side of Jack Kennedy’s head.” And ultimately, 11/22/63 poses far more questions than it answers. This is a novel that wants to know where the past resides, not simply what happened in it.

Stephen King regards the contextualizing of events – news as the first draft of history – with an historian’s dispassionate gaze, yet never loses sight of the fact that life is a story to be told. And the story is told in his always-engaging and intimate fashion. He creates and nurtures the comfortable effect of seeming to speak directly to the reader, while at the same time penetrating the psyche of a quasi-fictionalized madman and dragging you along for the ride.

Neil Baldwin is a Professor in the College of the Arts and director of the Creative Research Center at Montclair State University. A widely-published cultural historian, biographer and critic, his mos ...read more

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