Monday, January 9, 2012

11/22/63 by Stephen King

By Stephen King
Copyright 2011

Stephen King explores a new genre of writing as he undertakes time travel and dystopian futures in his latest novel. King, who loathes doing research, did his homework and produced a fantastic novel based on the real events leading up to and during the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963.

Jake Eppling is a recently divorced teacher forced to teach English in summer GED classes. He loathes the process of grading student essays which vary in quality, with none ever rising to the level of good. However, one essay stands out in the latest batch. The school’s janitor, who is earning his GED, writes about the night his alcoholic father broke into a rage and killed his entire family – save our janitor – on Halloween Night.

Jake is moved by the simple prose of the profoundly emotional story. He and the janitor, Harry Dunning, later celebrate Harry's graduation at a retro 1950s diner owned by a friend of Jake’s named Al Templeton. Al takes their picture and puts it on his wall of fame – a collection of his customers who are really all average Joes.

A few days later, while at school, Jake receives a call from Al which is alarming and strange since Jake didn’t think the two knew each other quite well enough for Al to interrupt him at work. Al tells Jake he has to see him tonight at the diner – it is an emergency.

Jake meets Al and notices his friend’s physical condition has deteriorated dramatically in just a few short days. He appears to have aged years. Al tells Jake this is because he’s been living the last several years in the late 1950s and early 1960s. While living in that time, he’s developed lung cancer and it is terminal.

He has summoned Jake because he must share his secret and his goal with someone before he passes on. Al tells Jake that there is a temporal anomaly – or a time portal – in the pantry of his little greasy spoon diner – a diner which will undoubtedly be torn down upon Al’s untimely death. This temporal anomaly has but one terminus – October 1958 Maine. Al says that he dedicated more than four years to being at the right place at the right time to save President Kennedy from assassination. In Al’s mind, the world would be a better place had Kennedy not died that November afternoon.

The temporal anomaly has a fixed return point in time and place as well. The return is always back to Al’s diner and the return time is always just two minutes after you leave. If you go back, all the changes wrought previously are reset. Al invites Jake to try it out. All he has to lose in his own time and place is two minutes of his time.

Jake resolves to return to Derry, Maine in October 1958 to stop his janitor’s father from killing his family. He steps through the portal and finds himself outside of a working textile mill and it does appear to be 1958. He is greeted by a drunken old man who asks Jake for a dollar to take advantage of a two for one special at a liquor store just around the corner. This man, who Al calls the Yellow Card Man because of the strange yellow card stuck in the band on the guy’s hat. Jake gives him fifty cents as Al instructs him to do.

He is struck by the differences in his hometown and the cultural differences as well. Well stocked with 1950s vintage cash, courtesy of Al who used his knowledge of future sporting events to amass a healthy stock of cash, Jake acquires a set of wheels and motors off for Derry to save Harry Dunning’s father from killing his family.

While biding his time and trying to learn more about Dunning, Jake acquaints himself with 1950s culture. He buys the right clothes and tries to learn to adjust his speech and mannerisms for the times – with uneven results. He also encounters two characters well known to fans of Stephen King. Richie Tozier and Beverly Marsh, just a few months removed from sending IT into deep hibernation, are in the park trying to learn the fine art of swing dancing with a battery powered record player. Jake stops long enough to provide a little instruction. He also encounters the taciturn and abrupt Norbert Keene, proprietor of Derry’s only apothecary who, one day in the summer of 1958, told Eddie Kaspbrak that the only asthma he had was the asthma his mother placed in his head.

Halloween night finally arrives and Jake prepares to make his move. However, Mr. Dunning the elder has more than one enemy and Jake has tipped his hand to this guy who is determined to stop Jake from killing Dunning so he can do it himself. He and Al eventually head to the Dunning house together and encounter Mr. Dunning in his full rage. Dunning kills one of his sons with a hammer, but Jake and his accomplice are able to save the wife, the daughter, and Harry Dunning – future janitor extraordinaire.

After what seems like a month in another time, Jake returns to 2011 to find Al patiently waiting for him, finishing the cigarette he started when Jake left. Jake tells Al that he is successful in preventing the horror that would shape Harry Dunning’s life. Al asks Jake to consider taking over the quest to save Kennedy and change the world for the better. Jake, born long after Kennedy’s untimely demise, says he will take it under advisement.

Jake returns to the school to find that Harry Dunning is not a janitor there and never was. This does not particularly surprise Jake, so he starts research to find out what happened to Harry Dunning. The Internet reveals no clues. It seems there never was a Harry Dunning. Finally, Jake is able to track down the sister whom he calls. She informs Jake that Harry grew up and went off to fight in Vietnam where he was killed in action.

Jake is distraught that he doomed a man to die in an undeclared war instead of living out full life. He reasons that if he goes back again, saves Harry Dunning again, and then saves Kennedy, that Kennedy will not escalate the conflict in Vietnam and Harry Dunning will be saved by the wise political actions of JFK. (This is specious historically, but serves the story).

Jake goes to Al’s house to tell him that he’s decided to make the trip. However, when he gets there, he finds that Al has ended his life and his suffering with an overdose of painkillers. Jake helps himself to the remainder of Al’s 1950s cash and heads for the past. He takes with him Al’s extensive notes on the Kennedy assassination and the biographical notes on the last years of the misbegotten life of Lee Harvey Oswald to guide him.

First, he goes back to Derry and, in a much neater fashion, saves the Dunning family. Finding Derry, Maine to be an unfriendly, unsettling place he’s eager to vacate, Jake attains an education degree from a correspondence school and heads to Florida where, using his fake credentials, he gets a job as a substitute English teacher.

Jake warms to his job and his colleagues. While in Florida, he places a number of bets on sporting events. Some are small, routine bets. But others are high yield bets which are sure things to Jake with his knowledge of events, but draw attention from his bookie with strong ties to organized crime. Sensing he has overplayed his hand, Jake vacates Florida and heads for Texas. He later learns that the house he was renting was firebombed shortly after he left town.

He settles in the town of Jodie, Texas and takes a job teaching English there. He soon falls for the school librarian, Sadie Dunhill who is in the process of divorcing her husband who lives back in Atlanta. The two quickly fall in love, but Sadie soon grows suspicious of Jake for his strange language and odd statements. Despite his best efforts, Jake can’t help but have lapses and one day, starts singing Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones – a song’s lyrics that were mildly risqué in 1971 when it was released and would be over the top by the standards of 1960.

Sadie pressures Jake to tell her more about who he is and where he came from, suspecting that Jake is holding back. Jake finally admits there is more to his story, but will not tell her. She breaks off their relationship at the end of the school year. Sadie heads off for Las Vegas to establish short term residency to get her Vegas divorce. Jake heads for Fort Worth where Lee Harvey Oswald will soon set up residence.

Jake rents the house across the street from the house that Lee and Marina Oswald will soon take up residency in a Fort Worth slum. Jake also finds a bookie so he can maintain his cash flow. He talks to the current residents who are preparing to vacate the home that the Oswalds will soon occupy. The woman’s name is Ivy Templeton. The name is striking in the story because it happens to be Al’s last name. Through Mrs. Templeton, Jake is able to learn the layout of the house across the street.

Jake settles in to observe and study the Oswalds and to worry about Sadie whom he misses badly. The Oswalds soon take up residence. Jake has bugged their apartment and studies the Oswald family with the underachieving Lee with his delusions of grandeur, his domineering mother who henpecks him constantly, and his lovely, but submissive wife whom he beats and mentally abuses.

One of Al’s major concerns he documents in his notes is whether or not Lee received help in killing Kennedy. Conspiracy theories regarding the Kennedy assassination have been an industry unto themselves in the United States since that date in Dallas and Al had one major concern regarding a Russian émigré who was close to Oswald.

The Oswalds receive frequent visits from a Russian named George de Mohrenschildt who is obsessed with a ranting right winger who takes to the radio to speak out against all things communist. General Edwin Walker will soon survive an assassination attempt undertaken by Lee Harvey Oswald. Jake is convinced that if he ascertains whether or not de Mohrenschildt was actually a participant or just an agent provocateur, he will know the truth about Oswald’s role as either a lone assassin or patsy in a conspiracy.

Jake continues to worry about Sadie as well. He is convinced that Sadie’s strange husband is not going to take the divorce well and is concerned. One night he calls Sadie and she doesn’t answer. Convinced that something is wrong, he heads back to Jodie instead of observing the assassination attempt on General Walker. As Jake often notes, the past is obdurate; it does not want to be changed. Time itself is fighting Jake’s efforts to change it.

He arrives in Jodie to find that Sadie has been attacked by her ex-husband. She is badly beaten and slashed across the face by her husband who is killed by one of Sadie’s fellow teachers. Sadie falls into a deep depression over her disfigurement and injuries. Jake briefly abandons his pursuit of Oswald to help Sadie return to mental and physical health.

The Cuban Missile Crisis comes and goes. As Sadie and the rest of the world look on in terror as the two superpowers play chicken over a Caribbean island, Jake reassures Sadie that the Russians will look for a way out to save face and avoid nuclear war. When Sadie demands to know how Jake knows this, he finally confides in her his true nature. She doesn’t believe it at first, but with more and more information flowing from Jake, she soon accepts it.

The Oswalds abandon Fort Worth and head for a brief sojourn in New Orleans before they will return to Dallas one final time. Lee rents the downstairs apartment in the duplex where the Oswalds will reside upstairs. Jake is resolved to track all of Oswald’s final days to ascertain whether or not there was a conspiracy. He visits Dealey Plaza and visits the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository.

Before he can learn much, he is attacked by a bookie who is angry over having lost so much money to Jake. It turns out that his bookie in Derry, in Fort Worth, in Florida, and in Dallas are all linked to the same organized crime organization. Time is being obdurate again. One of the Dallas police officers investigating Jake’s assault is none other than Officer J.D. Tippit – the officer Oswald will kill in his desperate attempt to escape police pursuit.

Jake is brain damaged and much of his memory, his ability to speak, and his ability to reason is damaged. He has no recall of who he really is and what he is doing. Sadie tries to help him regain his senses. As the final month passes and October 1963 turns to November 1963, the man who would stop history altering events isn’t sure who he is.

Finally, one phrase breaks through Jake’s mental block – “The word of Al.” Jake remembers that he had a notebook put together by a guy named Al that told all about what he was doing and why he was doing it. Jake retrieves the notebook from a safety deposit box and reads it. Most of his memories come flooding back to him over the next several days.

November 22 finally arrives and Jake takes off in a frenzy to reach Dealey Plaza in time to save the president. Sadie is determined to accompany him. Along the way, they have a flat tire, are caught in a traffic jam, and are in a car wreck. History is trying to keep him from his appointment with Oswald.

Sadie and Jake race the final few blocks to the book depository and climb the steps to the sixth floor. As they weave through the stacks of books, they hear the first shot fired and see Oswald sitting at his perch, chambering another round into the bolt action rifle. Jake shoots and misses Oswald. Oswald turns and fires, hitting Sadie in the chest. Jake returns fire and kills Oswald. Kennedy’s motorcade flies out of Dealey Plaza and back to Love Field.

Jake spends Sadie’s last moments with her before she dies and he is arrested. The police question him but his story matches what apparently happened: Jake saved the president’s life. While still at police headquarters, Jake receives a call. President Kennedy calls to thank him for saving his life as well as that of Jackie and others in the motorcade. Jake becomes a national hero.

The FBI accepts that Jake is not part of any conspiracy to kill Kennedy, but they want him to drop out of sight for awhile so they can investigate, not entirely sure how Jake knew that Oswald was going to be at that particular place on that particular day. Before Jake leaves 1963, a massive earthquake kills thousands in California – an event that did not happen in the normal course of history.

Heartbroken over the death of Sadie, Jake returns to Maine and the textile mill where the portal still exists. There, he finds another man standing where the Yellow Card Man used to stand. This man reveals himself to be a guardian over the time portal. There are many portals and many timelines, the guardian tells Jake. The guardian that Jake knew as the Yellow Card Man died of alcoholism. It is an occupational hazard, the guardian tells Jake, with many guardians driven insane by trying to keep timelines straight in their own head.

This particular guardian wears a green card in his hat band. This, he says, is indicative that this string of time is healthy. He encourages Jake to return to his own time. Jake is eager to see the world as it would have been had Kennedy survived. He arrives to find the future he created quite dystopian.

The world has been nuked. Kennedy did not save the world. Instead, he became increasingly unpopular. Hostilities between the superpowers increased with the gunslinger Kennedy in the White House. Ronald Reagan, elected president in 1976, made matters worse and eventually nuclear war broke out and the government of the United States fell. Maine seceded from the union and joined Canada, Jake learns. He learns this from none other than Harry Dunning – the man he saved from Vietnam but doomed to live out his years in post nuclear Canada.

Realizing that he’s badly messed up time itself and fundamentally altered the course of the human race, Jake returns to 1958. He can immediately set things to right by sampling returning to 2011. But he can’t forget Sadie. He checks into a hotel room and contemplates returning to Jodie, getting a teaching job, and meeting and falling in love with Sadie all over again to live out his life in the 1960s and 1970s.

Finally, he realizes he cannot doom man on earth for his own lost love and steps back through the portal one final time. All is as it should be. He travels to Jodie to find Sadie, now an old woman, has survived the attack by her ex husband without his help. She is an old woman now, having never married. Jake asks her to dance. . .

Give Stephen King kudos for doing his homework on the Kennedy assassination and Lee Harvey Oswald before writing this book. In his closing notes, King tells us that he and a research assistant invested hours in interviewing historians, visiting Dallas, and learning all they could about Oswald. Their primary text in research was William Manchester’s 1967 book, The Death of a President. This factual account of Oswald’s actions prior to killing Kennedy and the events themselves that day in Dallas is a narrative account of history, unfettered by the wild conspiracy theories that developed later. Although it was one of the first books published on the subject, it remains one of the most authoritative. I've read more than a dozen books on the subject of the Kennedy assassination and none are more straightforward in the telling than Manchester's.

As for the story, it is one of King’s better works – certainly the best thing he’s written since Cell. As is King’s wont, each character is provided with extensive backstory, making them deep and rich. The story is not only a narrative of a man trying to change history, but a man observing what was good and bad about another time and a man in love, which is always timeless. King weaves Jake’s dual motivations together seamlessly and we experience Jakes struggle between what he regards as his duty to save Kennedy and his desire to love Sadie.

I feared that this book would become an outlet for all of Stephen King's liberal politics and fantasies to play out. I've never let the difference between King's politics and my own discourage me from enjoying his work. Seldom do his politics creep into his work, even when dealing with political issues such as he did in The Dead Zone. When the do, such as in the horrible book, The Regulators, it is always distracting. I was certain that King's political hero, Gary Hart, was going to be savior of the world in the end.

Alas, King spared us from all that. He instead developed a plausible series of political events that did not disparage any person or political party. Gary Hart didn't even figure into the equation.

King, like many writers his age, has romanticized that time of the late 1950s and early 1960s as a wonderful time. I’ve heard of people referring to November 22, 1963 as the day the “nation lost its innocence.” King does not rhapsodize on how beautiful that period was and how innocent they all were back then. His story points up the overt racism, sexism, and narrow mindedness of American culture as well as the terrifying international events that transpired. He notes that Dallas circa 1963 was a mean place. It was and the political rifts that existed between the competing ideologies were as wide then as they are today as is evidenced by the ascendency of ardent right winger Barry Goldwater to the Republican presidential nomination in 1964.

But he also notes how we, as a people, were less suspicious of each other. How trusting we were in our fellow man 50 years ago as opposed to now. Some things, as King notes, do get worse with the passage of time. We are a nation of paranoids now when compared to the halcyon days of modern society in 1963.

King has reverted to form in linking 11/22/63 to his earlier works – a practice he’d all but given up. We see Beverly Marsh and Richie Tozier from IT. Also in Derry are the aforementioned Norbert Keene as well as the Tracker Brothers who own the trucking depot that became the metaphorical mental refuge of the main character in the novel Dreamcatcher. King seems to revel in his return to Derry and helps the reader revel in it as well. Derry is a dark place, King readers know. Now we have Jake Eppling’s confirmation as he was palpably aware of the Derry’s dark undercurrents. There is also passing references to the Shawshank State Prison that is the setting for Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and is referenced in so many other King Castle Rock stories.

King uses the name Ivy Templeton as the person who rented the Fort Worth home before the Oswalds. Many horror fans will recognize her as the young girl who dies at the end of Frank DeFilitta’s 1976 novel Audrey Rose. I doubt this was an homage to DeFelitta since King ridiculed his work in his 1981 non fiction book, Danse Macabre, saying his work and that of author John Saul were not what he regarded as good horror. Perhaps just a name King grabbed out of his subconscious. He never elaborates on it.

The book comes in at just under 900 pages. While King is often criticized (often rightfully) for overwriting his stories, 11/22/63 is not one of them. In those 900 pages, there is nary an unimportant event or word. The story is epic and King tells it in the grandeur it deserves.

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