“Stephen King’s Novel 11/22/63 Explores a Fascinating ‘What If’ Premise.”

“It is virtually not assimilable to our reason that a small lonely man felled a giant in the midst of his limousines, his legions, his throng, and his security. If such a non-entity destroyed the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, then a world of disproportion engulfs us, and we live in a universe that is absurd.”  

                                                                                                                                         Norman Mailer

 

November 22, 1963, 6:30 a.m.

In a typical bachelor pad in Brooklyn, New York, a single man in his late twenties is awakened by the sound of the morning news emanating from his alarm clock radio. As per his usual routine, he gets up, showers, shaves, and proceeds to sit down to his usual breakfast of coffee – light, no sugar – while reading The New York Times. After the man finishes reading the paper and swallowing two cups of Joe, he returns to his bedroom where he gets dressed in a navy blue, three piece suit, a blue button-down collared shirt and a navy and red striped tie. Checking himself out in the mirror to make sure both his appearance and clothing is acceptable for his work environment, he leaves his apartment to face what, at the outset, he believes will be another ordinary day; however, before the conclusion of business an event will have occurred ushering in the most seminal watershed moment of not only the decade of the 1960s, but one of the most tragic events in American history.

 

24 hours earlier:

On November, 21, 1963, the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy and the First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, boarded Air Force One; the plane’s destination was Texas where they were scheduled to make a five city tour over the course of two days. The first destination on the tour was San Antonio where the President and First Lady were welcomed to the Lone Star State by Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Texas Governor, John Connally, and Senator Ralph W. Yarborough. Next, the three politicians accompanied Kennedy to Brooks Air Force Base where there was a dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center. Afterwards it was on to Houston, where Kennedy spoke to an organization of Latin American citizens, then addressed a gathering of people who attended a testimonial dinner for Congressman Albert Thomas before concluding his day in Fort Worth.

The next morning, even though rain fell, a gathering of thousands waited in a parking lot outside a hotel where the President and First Lady had spent the night. A makeshift platform was assembled and President Kennedy came out and spoke to his supporters. “There are no faint hearts in Forth Worth,” Kennedy began, and he thanked the masses for being there on a rainy morning. He proceeded to speak about the economy, the ordinary citizen’s involvement in helping to grow the country, and America’s need to reach the highest levels it could in achieving both a strong defense and space program. Afterwards, President Kennedy stretched his arm outward and several lucky supporters were able to shake the iconic man’s hand.

Meanwhile, our young man from Brooklyn has stopped at a coffee shop on the aptly named Court Street before heading into the adjacent office building that houses the law firm he works at. He orders a large coffee to go; once again the beverage is light and devoid of any sweetener. With coffee in hand, he leaves and heads into work. The entire time, he has been in route, he has been contemplating the legal solution to a client’s peril. It is all he plans to think about for the remainder of the day – little does he know that in a few short hours his contemplations will be anything but work related.

Back in Fort Worth, Texas, now inside the hotel he had stepped out of to address his supporters, it is 9:00 a.m. on the morning of November 22, 1963. At a breakfast, President Kennedy is addressing the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce on the preparedness of the American military. At the conclusion of the breakfast, Kennedy and his presidential contingent leave the hotel and make their way by motorcade to Carswell Air Force Base for the under twenty minute flight to Dallas.

Arriving at Love Field, the President and First Lady, disembarked the airplane and without hesitation made their way to a fence where a jubilant crowd of supporters were gathered waiting for an in person glimpse of Camelot. Holding a bouquet of red roses that had been given to her by a well wisher, the President and First Lady walked to a waiting convertible limousine where Governor Connally and his wife were already seated. The motorcade left Love Field and made its way along a route through downtown Dallas on the way to the Trade Mart where Kennedy was going to speak at a luncheon. Shouts of adulation greeted the Kennedy’s from enthusiastic people that had lined the streets just for a chance to wave at the first couple. At 12:30 p.m. the convertible turned off of Main Street at Dealey Plaza and as it passed the Texas School Book Depository three shots of gunfire reverberated in the air; two bullets hit the President, one in the neck and another in the head. The convertible sped off to Parkland Memorial Hospital, which was just a few minutes away, but there was nothing that could be done. America’s 35th President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was pronounced dead at 1:00 p.m.

Our young man in Brooklyn receives the news of the President’s death a short time later from one of the law firm’s secretaries. He feels like he has been punched in the gut and the usual zeal with which he goes about his work has been completely depleted. He gets up from his desk and walks to the open door of his office; he closes the door gently, returns to his desk and slumps down in his chair. He places his hands over his eyes, and although my father was not prone to crying, he never once did in front of me, and although he didn’t relay it to me while telling me his story of the day’s events, I have a feeling that he perhaps kept his hands over his eyes for a just a few seconds longer than he normally would, while he shed some tears before running his fingers through his jet black hair. He had been fortunate enough to have met President Kennedy twice while he was a law school student at George Washington University School of Law, and he was a strong admirer of both Kennedy’s speeches and vision for America. If given the opportunity at that very moment to be able to travel back in time in order to prevent the assassination, I have a strong suspicion he would have taken it, and more power to him.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will state at the outset, before I offer my thoughts on Stephen King’s novel “11/22/63,” that I am a contrarian. I don’t for one solitary second believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was alone in ending Kennedy’s life. I am not saying he didn’t play a role in the assassination, but I am hard pressed to accept that someone, who according to his United States Marine’s military record was a lousy shot, Maggie’s drawers as it is known in military parlance, (which stands for the red flag that is waved on a target range indicating that the bullet has completely missed) was able to get off three shots, including the fatal head shot, in less than six seconds.

I am also fully aware that the concept of time travel in order to either save an individual or change history has been done before. For example, episode forty-nine of the original “Twilight Zone” television show, “Back There,” which aired on January 31, 1961, dealt with Russell Johnson’s (he played the professor on Gilligan’s Island) character of Pete Corrigan, who finds himself in Washington, DC in the year 1865 on the evening of the assassination of President Lincoln with time left to prevent it. In various incarnations of “Star Trek,” both the television shows and feature films, time travel has played a pivotal role. One episode in particular, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” which first aired on April 6, 1967, deals with the consequences of time travel as it pertained to altering World War II. The Hugo award (an award given for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy) winning episode was one of the original series’ most critically acclaimed and, in this blogger’s opinion, the best of the first season. Books such as “Lest Darkness Fall” by L. Sprague de Camp, which involves a time traveler who brings both knowledge and modern technology to the Roman Empire, or movies like director Robert Zemeckis’s 1985 film “Back to the Future,”  or the 1960 movie “The Time Machine,” directed by George Pal, also deal with the subject of time travel. With that being established, Stephen King is not the first author, teleplay writer, screenwriter or director to explore the “what if” questions of time travel and the consequences that could occur. King’s mastery of storytelling, however, is not only undeniably evident in this particular novel, but also so incredibly captivating and persuasive that in this blogger’s opinion, it makes the fact that the work does not contain an original concept obsolete.

The 849 page science fiction, alternative history novel was published by Scribner on November 8, 2011 and became an instant best seller. I could immediately identify with the novel’s main protagonist and narrator Jake Epping from Lisbon Falls, Maine. He is a thirty-five year old, public school, English teacher, who also works as a GED tutor in the evenings to earn extra money. I have done both during the course of my life, however, what separates Jake and myself, as well as every other individual who has read or will read this novel, is having a friend like Al Templeton.

But, I digress. Prior to Al making a life altering offer to Jake, the teacher’s life is deeply affected by a harrowing, first person essay he reads written by Harry Dunning, who is one of his GED students and the janitor at the high school he works at. In his essay, Harry writes about how his life was forever changed when his father came home and murdered his mother, and three siblings and left him with a permanent limp. The essay is the catalyst which leads Jake to want to know his student outside of the traditional teacher / student dynamic and find out more about the horrific events that transpired on that night fifty years earlier. It also sets up the basis for a test that will allow Jake to determine if what Al even asks is possible.

Al, the owner of Al’s Fat Burgers, a local town diner, harbors a phenomenal secret within the confines of his establishment’s storage room. Al approaches Jake one afternoon with an unbelievable story involving time travel. Al informs his friend that he has been traveling back to the year 1958 through his storage room in order to purchase ground beef at 1958 prices before one day realizing that he should use the passageway to the past for more worthwhile endeavors. Each time Al enters the past it is always on the same day, September 9, 1958, at the same time, 11:58 a.m., and each time he leaves 1958, regardless of what he has done or with whom he has spoken while there, a reset takes place. Only two minutes have gone by in the present regardless of the amount of time Al has spent in the past, however, while in the past he continues to age normally. Furthermore, the past is obdurate as is repeated throughout the book, it does not want to be changed, and once it has been altered it could wind up having more of a negative impact than originally intended.

Jake of course dismisses Al’s story as nothing more than the rambling’s of someone who has lost touch with reality, until, he himself walks into the storage room, goes toward the back, places his foot on an invisible step and keeps on walking until he is in 1958. Upon Jake’s return, Al shares with him that he is dying of lung cancer and was not able to finish the “job” he started in the past. What job is Al’s speaking of ? The answer: Stopping Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating, President Kennedy. Al wants Jake to go back in time and stop Oswald because he wholeheartedly believes that if it is done, the course of history as it is known in the year 2011, the year in which the novel begins, will be changed for the better. Jake does not want to take on the herculean task until Al leaves him with no choice – a dying man’s last wish.

Problems of course are evident to Jake from the outset. For starters, he has to begin in 1958, five years before Oswald supposedly pulls the trigger killing Kennedy. Therein lies the brilliance of the compelling book. If it were a simple matter of Jake going back in time on the morning of November 22, 1963, a few hours before the event, where he had the option to either kill Oswald or alert the authorities to where and when the deed was to be carried out, that would make for a pretty dull read.

The intervening years that Jake must wait are necessary because it allows the prolific King an opportunity to paint a vivid literary portrait of simpler times, which seamlessly blends both history and science fiction. In addition, it affords Jake the chance to find out exactly what happened on that November afternoon in Texas. Was there a well orchestrated conspiracy? Was Oswald a patsy as he stated in an interview shortly before he was killed by Jack Ruby? Did Oswald finally realize the enormity of what he had done and in some vain attempt try to save his own skin by casting doubt on himself and offering up the patsy excuse to get people talking conspiracy? What about King’s working into the story of George de Mohrenschildt, who is not a fictional character conjured up from King’s imagination, but an actual Soviet expatriate. He is a person, who is consistently mentioned in conspiracy lore; a man who befriended Lee Harvey Oswald in the summer of 1962 and over the course of several months took Oswald to meetings that denounced Cuban leader Fidel Castro. What else the two men discussed is largely unknown.

All the questions lead to one conclusion for Jake. He must know with absolute certainty that Oswald was the lone gunman before he can kill him. A good deal of the novel deals with the investigation into confirming one way or the other whether Oswald acted alone. Jake diligently watches Oswald, shadowing his moves from place to place, listens in on his conversations with long range devices and captures his words on tape recorders using hidden bugs. What Jake does learn is that Oswald is an unpleasant person. He is a man who is desperate to change what he feels is a broken world, beats his wife, is highly emotional, and has low self esteem. But those undesirable personality traits don’t answer the question of whether or not he acted alone in the killing of Kennedy; so Jake must continually stay steadfast in pursuit of the ultimate truth.

While on his quest, Jake, using his time travel persona of George Amberson, moves to the town of Jodie Texas, where he gets a job teaching high school English by providing falsified references. While working there he falls deeply in love with the attractive school librarian, Sadie Dunhill, who has an interesting past of her own. As you can imagine the relationship only serves to further complicate matters concerning Jake’s ultimate task. He is confronted by two choices: Does he tell Sadie the truth and risk her thinking him a mental case? Does he push her away, so she does not get caught up in any dangerous situations? If she agrees to stick by him, what happens to their relationship if he is successful? Can she return to the future with him? King crafts a rich and textured relationship between the two characters, which serves to keep the reader emotionally invested in their happiness.

As an aside, an adaptation of the book is scheduled to be made into a motion picture. Academy Award winning director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) will be writing, directing and producing it.

Stephen King originally had the idea for the book back in 1972, but felt it would be too difficult an undertaking in terms of the research for someone who was a full time teacher at the time. He also felt that it was too soon after the Kennedy assassination to offer a book that dealt with the “what if” premise. In regard to the research, King did an exhaustive amount in order to make sure everything he wrote about regarding the time period of the late 50s and early 60s was authentic: from the prices for gas, to the way people spoke, to the kind of cars that were available to drive, to the music on the radio. I found the closing pages to be heartwarming in places, in other spots heartbreaking, and the final scene and sentences can be summed up with the word “bittersweet.” As I closed the book, I asked myself a question. The same question that I kept thinking about for several days after I was finished reading: Mr. King, couldn’t you have just let… No, I can’t finish that question. If you would like to know what it is please e-mail me or facebook message me and I will be happy to tell you. In the interest of fairness, I don’t want to ruin the ending for those of you who haven’t read it. In this blogger’s opinion, once you pick up the heart pounding, emotionally charged page turner and begin to follow Jake Epping on his journey, you won’t be able to stop until its conclusion.

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About robbinsrealm

I was born in Smithtown, New York, and grew up, worked, and lived in various areas of Long Island before moving to Boca Raton, Florida where I now make my home. In addition to being an aspiring writer, I am also an English teacher. I have a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master’s Degree in Education, both from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. In my spare time you will find me engrossed in books, watching movies, socializing with friends, or just staying active.
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4 Responses to “Stephen King’s Novel 11/22/63 Explores a Fascinating ‘What If’ Premise.”

  1. Fabulous post! I must be between you and your father in age. I was in college at the time of Kennedy’s assassination. I read King’s early books but dropped out after the first ten or so. 11/22/63 was the first King I read in well over a decade. I chose it for the content and glad I did! Thank you so much for a great post.

  2. Christy B says:

    I have this book but haven’t read it yet. It’s patiently awaiting me on the bookshelf :S

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