Next on my book review list is 11.22.63 by Stephen King, a giant novel too heavy to take anywhere so it lived on my nightstand and was reserved for bedtime reading only.
This is only the third book I’ve ever read by King – the first was On Writing, a memoir of his experiences as a writer, and the second was The Long Walk, written under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. I enjoyed both of these and was looking forward to 11.22.63 as it had come highly recommended. But I’m sorry to say that I was very disappointed with it.
The premise of the story is intriguing: in 2011 a high school teacher called Jake Epping is shown a ‘rabbit-hole’ into the past, which sends him back to 9th September 1958 every time he goes down into it. Believing he can change the world for the better, he decides to live in the past until 1963 so he can prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, that November. Pretty interesting, right?
Only that part of the story doesn’t actually start until a good third of the way through the book, with Jake not even attempting to head to Texas until around page 250. Prior to that we are required to follow his exploits in Derry, Maine, as he endeavours to carry out a smaller change in the past and then go back to the future to see what ramifications it may have caused. A reasonable plot point, yes, but it takes up far too much of a book that is claiming to be all about saving JFK.
What bothered me most about the opening third of the novel was that I knew I was missing something. While Jake was in Derry, King kept making references to characters and places which, to me, seemed rather irrelevant to the mission at hand. It was only after I was nearly finished that section of the book that I learned that it was all a throwback to It, which was also set in Derry in 1958. I don’t mind an author’s nod here or there to one of their previous works (such as the couple of mentions of Shawshank State Prison), but this was excessive. It probably pleased those who had read It but, having never read it myself, I felt out of the loop and, frankly, a little bored. I don’t think it should be a requirement to have read another of King’s books beforehand if the one I’m reading is supposed to be presented as a standalone novel. Yes, I got by without knowing everything that had happened in It, but, only for my policy of ‘always finish the book’, King might have lost me at this point.
However, 11.22.63 improved greatly around page 300 with the introduction of Jake’s love interest, Sadie Dunhill, who was by far and away my favourite character in the book. My patience was finally being rewarded – the blurb on the back had promised a love story, after all. Unfortunately, all the good scenes with Sadie were still being interspersed with long scenes where Jake didn’t do much at all but wait and watch the comings and goings of Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s suspected assassin. The pace was slow-going and I think it could have been told a lot more concisely.
Admittedly, the climax of the story was done well and in general I liked the ending, although I thought the consequences of the butterfly effect were maybe a little more outrageous than they necessarily needed to be (I can’t say any more than that without giving away spoilers).
I won’t say ‘don’t read this book’ because I have spoken to at least two others who enjoyed it immensely. In truth, I think my problem was that I simply was not Stephen King’s target demographic for this novel. I have never read It so I could not partake in the nostalgia associated with the Derry location and characters. I know little about America in the fifties, therefore a great deal of the slang, terminology and cultural references went over my head. I also could not claim to have an in-depth knowledge of the circumstances surrounding JFK’s assassination and I do feel that King made certain assumptions in that department that left me bereft of important details at various parts of the story.
The last thing I’ll say is that if this novel had been written by a debut writer, it would never have been published in its current form. It says a lot about the power and reputation of Stephen King that his editors were indulgent enough to allow a book so slow-paced and overlong to be printed. I suppose they knew it would sell anyway – long-standing fans will gobble up every new book that he writes, no matter what the length or content. However, if he is looking to ensnare a new wave of readers with this book, he hasn’t convinced me.