I’m a sucker for counterfactuals. (Nerd alert!) Perhaps it’s because I love history, but I’ve always enjoyed stories that consider how the past might have played out had key events gone in different direction. Stephen King’s new book, 11/22/63, which is about a time traveler from the present day who attempts to stop John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, would seem to be such a story.
The book really isn’t about stopping Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK, though. Oh sure, that’s what the plot advances towards and what the title conveys, but 11/22/63 mostly dwells on two things: the mechanics involved with and results of changing the past (even in seemingly minor ways), and what life was like in the “idyllic” 1950s and early 1960s. The story is no less interesting for that, however. I was really pulled into the picture King paints of that time.
In many ways, that world appears to be so much better than today’s. People moved around more freely, as they trusted each other more. The social contract was seemingly ironclad. Also, goods and services were high quality and inexpensive. Something as simple as a 10-cent root beer from that era would leave a lasting impression on today’s consumer, who’s accustomed to paying a buck for a Barq’s in an aluminum can. But what really stands out is the way people interacted: They were just more social, in part because they didn’t have the many, many time sucks that allow us to amuse ourselves to death.
That world was not without its problems, as the author makes clear. This was the time of Jim Crow, of course. Plus, you faced harsh treatment from your neighbors and colleagues if you strayed just a little bit from social norms. And certain dysfunctions in home life seemed to be tolerated more back then.
Despite all of that, though, you get the feeling as you read this book that something important has been lost in all of our progress. The protagonist shares that sentiment, at one point vowing to stay in that time. But he’s also on a mission, and that gets to the other theme in the book.
King’s conception of how time travel might work is both familiar and novel. He covers the well-known Butterfly Effect, but also explores quirks such as strangely parallel events and people, as well as the resistance of time itself to change. Suffice to say, the main character’s foreknowledge of what transpires doesn’t necessarily make it easy for him to affect the outcome.
One other thing worth mentioning: I hadn’t read anything by him in more than a decade, and I’d forgotten how good Stephen King is at spinning a compelling yarn. Although I mentally lump him in with other purveyors of “airport fiction,” the guy really can write. Don’t let his pop-lit rep — or the 800-plus pages — keep you from reading this book.