Fiction Review: 11/22/63

"I have never been what you'd call a crying man."

- Opening line of 11/22/63

Hulu recently aired a miniseries based on Stephen King's 11/22/63 and with me geeking out in a superhero game set in the late 1950s, I've recently relistened to the audiobook version of the novel.

The novel tells the story of Jake Epping, an English teacher in Maine of 2011. He's recently divorced with no children, mid-30s.

Jake is a patron of Al's Diner, home of the insanely low-priced FatBurger. On the last day of school Al calls Jake at his school. Jake is a bit puzzled, as while they were on good terms, they weren't friends. Al asks Jake to come to the diner. Arriving, Jake is shocked to discover Al has aged several years and is in the late stages of terminal lung cancer. When last Jake saw Al, just the day before, he was a healthy man in his late 50s.

Al quickly introduces Jake to a time travel that he discovered in his diner. Rather than deal with the disbelief the story will cause, Al sends Jake on a brief trip.

The time portal has the following rules:

  • It always takes you back to September 9, 1958.
  • When you return, two minutes will have passed in the present (i.e. 2011). 
  • The past can be changed. However, it does not want to be changed and will resist you, sometimes violently.
  • Even though the past can be changed, every trip is a reset, undoing everything you did the last trip. For example, if you were to carve your initials in a tree in 1958 and come back to 2011 the tree will now have your initials. However, if you were to go back again to 1958 and this time not carve your initials, when you return to 2011 the initials will no longer be there (and indeed, will have never been there).
  • Lots of unexplained paradoxes occur. For example, Al initially used the portal for very mundane purposes - buying meat at 1958 prices. He has bought and served the same meat hundreds of times. 
I'll not dive much more into the plot - what I've described can barely be considered spoilers, as this is essentially the basic setup. 

The main plot is clearly going back in time to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing John F. Kennedy. Al tried doing that, but was not able to make it to 1963 - he caught lung cancer and was forced to return to the present and recruits Jake to try in his place. While Jake is hesitant, he does have his own motivation, inspired by the essay of a GED student he read - where the student's entire family was murdered by his father on Halloween of 1958. 

Jake makes  a trial trip in an attempt to stop the Halloween murders, followed by the full visit to the past to save Kennedy. However, he also must accomplish what Al failed to do - make absolutely certain Oswald is the killer and not part of a conspiracy. 

A large part of the book is dedicated to Jake adapting to life in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He is confronted by a largely non-digital world. In many ways he grows to like this world, finding it in general a more trusting and less suspicious world and finds food tastes much better. He also discovers just how much everyone smokes like a chimney... He also discovers the casual racism and sexism of the past.  

The murders he attempts to stop take place in Derry, Maine, the town of King's earlier novel It. He meets some of the characters from It, with the earlier part of the novel, set in summer of 1958, having recently finished. 

Jake supplements his finances with substitute teaching (enabled by a diploma obtained from a degree mill) and via gambling, using a list of long-shot bets that Al provided him with. While this gives him a way to get large infusions of cash, it also attracts the attention of organized crime. Not an ideal situation. He eventually finds his way to Texas and falls in love both with a small town he gets a teaching job in and a woman who comes to that town. He is forced to balance his mission and the secrets he must carry with being open and honest in his new life. He doesn't always succeed, if for no other reason than his 21st century colloquialisms sometimes slip out.

11/22/63 is one of my favorite books. It is an ideal platform for one of King's greatest strengths, constructing engaging characters (and turning their lives into a living hell). He does a superb job taking you to the 1950s and 60s from Jake's perspective. We experience the simple joys Jake gets to experience in being a teacher, in finding a way to make a difference. And in many ways it's a sad novel, with Jake forced to make some brutal and heartbreaking decisions. 

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