When Al Templeton, owner of Al’s Diner in Lisbon Falls, Maine, invited high school English teacher Jay Epping over to his house, it was the culmination of many weeks of planning. Soon, Jay would step through the diner’s pantry door. Two minutes later, he’d walk back out a changed man.
In his newest novel – 11/22/63: A Novel – Stephen King takes us back to 1958. September 9th, to be exact, at 11:58 in the morning. The pantry, you see, is a portal to that particular date and time. Each visit back is like the first time.
It’s the movie Groundhog Day gone insane on steroids.
Al, whose dying of lung cancer, is on his last legs, and wants Jay to finish something for him. He wants Jay to change history, to thwart the assassination of John F. Kennedy by killing JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Jay, on the other hand, isn’t so sure this is what he wants to do. What about the time-travel paradox? You know, the question of what the consequences of killing a person in the past. What would happen in the ensuing years and how would that affect the world today?
If Jay would only travel back and confirm that Oswald had indeed made an attempt to kill conservative Gen. Edwin Walker, that would confirm everything Al has learned. Then, Al surmises, Jay would have ample reason to end Oswald’s life.
Kill Oswald and that would save JFK, prevent the death of his brother Bobby Kennedy, save Martin Luther King, save Vietnam, and prevent the race riots that tore the country apart in the ‘60s when President Lyndon Johnson ratcheted up the war in Vietnam.
Al tells Jay that during one of his trips back, he saved a Carolyn Poulin from life in a wheelchair. But when Jay went through the portal for the first time and had a root beer, that alternate future reverted back to today’s actual status quo. Carolyn is now back in her wheelchair.
Determined to do his own test, Jay decides to do one more preliminary journey back and try to prevent school janitor Harry Dunning’s father from killing Harry’s mother and essentially wrecking his life. And what an adventure THAT turns out to be. Jake accomplishes what he went for, returning two minutes later, but with a few complications to face and the knowledge that the past does NOT like to be changed.
After a short rest, Jake resets his determination and goes back to 11:58 a.m., Sept. 1958, for a five-year excursion culminating in a date with destiny.
It was a time when men went around wearing straw hats and ties. Jerry Lee Lewis, Troy Shondell and Ferlin Husky were hot. There were 35-cent special walk-in admissions at the movie drive-in and 15-cent bus rides, and everybody smoked cigarettes wherever they wanted. The Yankees beat the Milwaukee Braves in 7 games after trailing 3 games to 1, and an increasingly decrepit derelict kept offering a yellow ticket for a buck.
11/22/63: A Novel is as nostalgic as all get out to a guy (me) who lived the era and remembers all the iconic moments laid out in the story. King’s prose is exceptionally mesmerizing in this book, sucking you in like a maelstrom on a sunny day – you know, powerfully while you enjoy the outing on what you thought was a calm sea.
It’s one helluva good book – gripping, full of history disguised as real life, and as compelling a story as Stephen King has ever written. No horror, just good story-telling.
Scribner ($35.00 list)