Stephen King falls into the rabbit hole in “11/22/63”

Stephen King’s latest book, “11/22/63” is surprising. As I began reading it, I remarked to myself that it told the story of an average guy whose life was unhappy, who then stumbled onto a sense of mission or purpose in his life, then went on to find happiness in another town with another woman. Just a normal story about normal people. Different from what I have come to expect from Stephen King.

Well, except for the part about how he steps into a time tunnel in the pantry of his friend, a dying restauranteur, and finds himself smack in the middle of 1958. There’s that.

But isn’t this about the Kennedy assassination? Yes, and No. It provides an interesting premise, but this is a story of a life. A life not unlike the lives many of us have lived, particularly those who lived through the 50s and 60s. In fact, it occurred to me that a lot might be lost on readers who were born in, say, the past 20 years. It is, on one level, a nostalgic trip back to a time when root beer tasted like root beer, teachers were dedicated to changing their students’ lives for the better, gasoline sold for 20 cents a gallon, and the music on the radio made sense to young people in love and didn’t use four letter words. It will be a strange universe to younger readers, no doubt, but one to which many of us baby boomers find ourselves visiting more often in treasured, if sometimes exaggerated and expurgated, memories. We forget that  it was also a time when “colored” people weren’t allowed to use public restrooms and were, instead, directed to the creek behind the gas station to do their duty. We prefer to focus on the poodle skirts and malt shops and the Friday night hop. Who wants to remember how awful we were to people who weren’t just like us?

As for the Kennedy assassination, who hasn’t wondered what our lives would have been like today had someone intervened on that fateful eponymic day in Dallas, Texas? Would we have gone on to lose our national integrity over that war in southeast Asia? Would we have surrendered our national identity to long-haired musicians who popularized drug use and displaced the Elivises, Dions, Sam Cookes, and the other strait-laced-by-comparison denizens of the music world (did Lee Harvey Oswald somehow lead us to Marilyn Manson)? Would Jack have left Jackie for Marilyn Monroe?  Would Bobby Kennedy have waited a few years before running for president had his brother served two terms? Would he have lived to run at a later time?

These are fascinating questions. But the book makes it clear that the law of unintended consequences makes such simple questions much more complex, that the butterfly flapping its wings across the continent can, if set off course by even the slightest breeze, bring about entirely different results. Everything involves a trade off, but the difficulty comes from being able to imagine what those might be when the possibilities are endless!

King doesn’t engage in tangential wanderings in this book, as he has sometimes tended to do in the past; he does allude to his novel IT when he finds himself in 1958 in Dallas; it becomes the basis for a book his protagonist claims to be working on as a cover for his real mission–stopping the assasination of JFK by Oswald and changing the world for the better. Or so he thinks.

But remember, this is a Stephen King novel. Will he accomplish his mission, and will the butterfly of the past be blown off course enough to send us hurtling into a future that might be even worse?

Frankly, I think this is one of the best books King has written, but then he has grown and matured and, like many of us who are growing older,he is plumbing new depths in his understanding of the world and his place in it.

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012 (originally posted December 2011)

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