Book review: “11/22/63” by Stephen King

Stephen King and T.S. Eliot

For the past 45 years, Stephen King has been writing and writing and writing. He has published 50 novels and more than 100 short stories. He has 350 million books in print and is estimated to be worth about $400 million.

He knows how to write a gripping best-selling novel.

So why am I disappointed — more than a bit — with 11/22/63?

Compelling and sputtering

I lived with 11/22/63 for a couple weeks, and, most of the time, it was a real page-turner.

It’s an 849-page science-fiction novel, published in 2011, that is about a present-day guy, Jake Epping (aka George Amberson), and his attempt to go back in time to try to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

I zipped through the first 300 pages as Jake makes his first forays into the past and back. And the stuff around the date of Oswald’s attempt on JFK was compelling as well.

But the novel sagged in the middle, and, after 11/22/63 in Dallas, the story sputtered and clanked its way to the final page.

Stumbled upon

Jake does his time-traveling through a “rabbit-hole” that his friend Al, the owner of a diner in Maine, literally stumbled upon in the back of his kitchen. Neither of them ever figures out how the rabbit-hole came to be. Or a lot of other things about this wrinkle in time.

Al has discovered that, whenever he goes through the invisible entryway, he emerges every time in the same location that his diner will occupy — but on September 9, 1958 at 11:58 a.m. when the space is empty. And he has learned that, whenever he returns through the rabbit-hole, he’s back in 2011 just two minutes after his departure, no matter how many minutes, days or years he’s spent in the past.

The diner-owner also realizes that he’s able to carry stuff with him back and forth, and that, each time he returns to 1958, the past re-sets itself. Everything that he changed on his previous trip is wiped away.

(Thus, on one trip, he’s able to buy hamburger at cheap 1958 prices for his diner, bring it back, cook it, sell it and then return to 1958 and buy it again and bring it back again.)

Taking Al’s place

Al gets the idea of staying in the past long enough to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating Kennedy. He spends four years there, but, a lifelong smoker, develops lung cancer that is about to kill him.

So, he returns to 2011 and recruits Jake, a high school teacher, to take his place.

As you might imagine, Jake is taken aback by Al’s story of time-travelling and of trying to save JFK. But, as an experiment, he goes to 1958 with the intention of saving a girl from serious injury in a hunting accident. He does, and, when he gets back to 2011, he’s able to confirm that his effort was successful.

But Jake also knows that, if he returns to 1958, his saving of the girl will be wiped away. So, when he goes back with the idea of killing Oswald, he has to, first, save the girl again.

Complicating things is his desire to protect several members of a friend’s family from being slaughtered by a drunken father.

Where 11/22/63 drags and picks up again

All of these comings and goings take up those first 300 pages of 11/22/63, and they’re really gripping.

But, then, it’s 1960, and Jake still has three years to live through before he can confront Oswald. So he settles in the small town of Jodie, Texas, near enough to Dallas and Fort Worth that he’s able to do research and surveillance. He works as a substitute teacher — and falls in love.

This is where the novel drags. For nearly 400 pages.

Around page 660, in late summer 1963, Jake, known in this time period as George, is beaten into a coma by mobsters for a longshot sports bet he’d won (knowing, as he does, the future).

And that’s when the pace finally picks up again.

The “obdurate” past

Over and over again in his forays into what he calls the Land of Ago, Jake finds that “the past is obdurate.” Which is to say that anyone attempting to change the future finds roadblocks, literal and metaphorical, in his path, e.g., the beating.

At this point in the novel, there is a building urgency as Jake (George) tries to overcome his physical infirmities to get himself to Dallas in time to protect the President.

It’s great stuff.

So, the novel’s opening works wonderfully. The middle sags. And the climax is strong.


Then comes a coda of 50 or 60 pages that fritters itself into an anti-climax. It takes too long for King to say what he wants to say. He makes it all too convoluted. One twist at the end isn’t as shocking as I suspect he thought it would be. Another twist, though, is sweet.

When it comes to publishing, King is an 800-pound gorilla. What publisher is going to edit his work, really?

Yet, this is a bloated novel that would have benefited from some heavy duty slicing and dicing by an editor, particularly in the middle section and those final 50 pages.

The Waste Land

Let me just mention T.S. Eliot and The Waste Land.

A page from T. S. Eliot's manuscript of The Waste Land as edited by Ezra Pound

This poem, as we know it, is half the length of Eliot’s original draft. And we have Ezra Pound to thank for that. Eliot showed him the draft, and Pound cut substantial portions and urged Eliot to make other significant changes.

The result is a masterpiece of English literature.

Ezra Pound

Perhaps King could learn a lesson from Eliot. And Pound.

Patrick T. Reardon

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