11/22/63 is the first book I read by Stephen King. And judging by the glowing reviews this book has received on GoodReads, I surely started at the top of the hill.
11/22/63 is the first book I’ve read from the alternate history and slipstream fiction genre. Slipstream is a kind of fiction that is a blend of science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction. Alternate history is a genre of fiction consisting of stories that revolve around a ‘what-if?’ plot based upon a past historical event.
How did I find this uncommon genre? I learnt about these genres via @colourmeread Instagram page, where she was hosting a monthly challenge in July. I scanned through her blog post for suggested titles, and there I met Stephen King.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t live in a cave where Stephen King was the name of the 63rd moon of Jupiter. I had heard about him, but I hadn’t come across many books by him in my college library or neighborhood library. Moreover, none of my family members or offline friends had read books by him.
But I am an adventurous reader. I like to try out as many new genres, authors and books as I can (as long as they meet my high bookish standards, that is). And this book was no exception.
11.22.63 can be described using two short phrases. “Time travel” and “assassination of President of U.S.A. John F. Kennedy“. The rest is sheer brilliance.
Jake Epping is the protagonist of this book, and he’s an English teacher at Lisbon High School, Maine. He has recently divorced his chronic alcoholic wife, Christy. (Don’t worry too much about her, she’s not the point of the story).
The story starts at the graduation ceremony of one of Jake’s students, Harry Dunning. Harry had written an assignment about the worst memory of his life: the night his father murdered his entire family, and how he (Harry) remained the sole survivor from that catastrophe. Jake, who was incredibly pained as he read this assignment, gave Harry an A+, ignoring the blatant grammatical mistakes in the assignment. And this was the start of a really long friendship.
Jake also has another friend, Al Templeton. Al Templeton owned a diner, which none of the LHS Faculty frequented, except Jake. Reason? The Al’s Famous Fatburger was really cheap, and everyone thought Al used cat meat instead of real meat in the burgers. (Cat lovers, relax. Al never used cat meat in his burgers. You’ll understand why the burgers were so cheap once you make progress into the story.)
One day, Jake receives a call from Al who requests him to meet up at the diner as soon as possible. Sensing urgency, Jake rushes there, inspite of Al’s cagey way of not clearly saying what was wrong. When Jake arrives at the diner, Al tells him about the hidden portal in his pantry. A portal he could use to go back in time to 11.58 am, 9th September 1958. Each trip to the past could be taken for how many ever years desired. When you return back to the present (2011), it would seem like as if only 2 minutes have passed by.
Before I talk about the book in detail, let me give a brief intro about the butterfly effect. The name is derived from the phenomenon that the beating of wings by a butterfly leads to a tornado in some place on the Earth after a long period of time. While the butterfly effect can actually be proved by using some physics mumbo-jumbo, the butterfly effect has also been used in pop culture as a metaphor for ‘small insignifcant things lead to bigger important things’. As ‘rational’ human beings, we yearn to find reasons to each and every thing that happens on Earth. Using the concept of butterfly effect is one way in which we rationalise things that may not seem related at first glance.
Now that you’ve understood the concept of butterfly effect, and read the words “assassination of JFK”, I’m pretty sure you’ve understood what Al’s motive is: he wants to send Jake on a mission to save JFK. How? By killing the man who would kill JFK. Why? Because JFK staying alive and not dying on 22nd November 1963 would, according to Al, solve a lot of modern day problems.
Why can’t Al do it on his own? Because he has been diagnosed with lung cancer, and knows that he would not be able to stay healthy enough to stay in the past for five years (1958 to 1963). Infact, Al dies a few days after he reveals the portal and plan to save JFK to Jake. (This is not a spoiler. It was pretty evident that Al would die. You’ll understand why when you read the book.)
Jake is armed with some money that Al collected from all the trips he’s made into the past, a fake identity card, loads and loads of intricately observed information about Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who was arrested for the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
But the thing is, Jake is NOT 100% interested in saving JFK. Naah-uh. He’s doing that only because it’s Al’s dying wish. What he really wants to do is, kill Harry Dunning’s father before it’s too late. (Get it? Kill Harry Dunning’s father before the father can kill his family? Jake felt that the past had done more injustice to Harry, as compared to anyone else. Which is completely valid. You tend to sympathise more with someone you know, as compared to sympathising with random people sitting all over the world.)
And so, Jake steps into the past, renaming himself as George Amberson. And the rest is all for you to read! Does Jake end up saving Harry Dunning’s family? Can George Amberson fulfill Al Templeton’s death wish? Filled with twists and turns that will make you clutch your hair in despair, this book is one you won’t be able to put down. And that’s a good thing, because it’s a really long read (849 pages). It took me more than a month to read this book!
There are many characters in this book. A few prominent ones are Harry Dunning, Lee Harvey Oswald, Sadie Dunhill (ooh, I can’t wait till you reach the part where she becomes a main character!). A few characters were necessary for only a few scenes, but yet Stephen King did them as much justice just as he would to a full time protagonist. Backstory? Check. Emotions? Check. Motive? Check. Bill Turcotte (I won’t reveal who he is), Miz Mimi (suffice to say she’s the sassiest woman on planet 11/22/63), Ivy Templeton (one smart cookie). All of these characters don’t last beyond a few chapters, but they totally linger in your mind once you finish reading the book. I really am at a loss to decide who my favourite character is.
Moreover, I feel that this book was more plot-oriented than character-oriented. Hence, I’ll tell you which was my favourite part of the book.
(Spoiler Alert) My favourite part of the book was when Jake aka George meets Sadie, and falls in love with her. I mean, they both fall in love with each other. It was my favourite plot twist, (and yes, love is the biggest plot twist in the history of mankind) because it raised serious doubts about whether Jake aka George would
- carry out Al’s mission and return back to the future and leave Sadie forever
- carry out the mission and stay with Sadie
- complete the mission and take Sadie with him to the future
- completely ignore the mission and step into the world of Sadie?
All these possibilities flashed into my mind when I realised which direction the plot twist was going. And I couldn’t wait to read the end of the book, majorly because of this plot twist! (Thanks to a Kindle, you can easily resist the temptation of flipping to the last page of the book and reading what happens in the end) (Spoiler Alert end)
What I liked about this book was that the sudden twist and turns were in abundance, making the long read extremely un-boring. The plot twists didn’t make the reader feel dissatisfied about the direction the book was taking. Books with a theme of time travel need a lot of investment of time, quite literally. And I do feel that reading this book was the best bet I could take with my time.
A doubt that a reader may have: “If the portal takes Jake to 9th September 1958, and JFK was assassinated on 22nd November 1963, what does Jake do in those five years? Won’t it get boring to read about Jake’s life as George Amberson in those five years?” The thing is, that’s where Stephen King’s genius comes into picture. He makes those five years so engaging, that you won’t even realise how those five years flew by in the book (and how real time flew by in your real life)
Will 11/22/63 be your first Stephen King book? Or have you read this master’s work earlier too? Suggest some books for me to read in the comments below.