Stephen King’s greatly entertaining new book “11/22/63: A Novel” posits an alternate history in which a 21st-century time traveler goes back in time to try to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy and, perhaps, turn aside the world of troubles that seemed to ripple from it: Vietnam, Nixon, Martin Luther King’s assassination, campus and race riots. Had Lee Harvey Oswald, on his sniper’s perch on the top floor of the Texas Book Depository building, been even momentarily distracted at 12:30 on that awful Friday afternoon, much might have been different.
Local diner-owner Al Templeton has discovered that the door at the back of his diner’s pantry leads outside – into Sept. 9, 1958. Venturing out into the past, Al encounters some curious quirks in the physics of time travel. No matter how long he dwells there, when he returns to the present, only two minutes have elapsed. More consequentially, every time he goes back, there has been a “reset”: Any change he caused has simply vanished. When Al returns to the past, it is as if he had never been there.
Al starts out using the time portal for purely mundane purposes. He buys hamburger meat at 1958 prices and returns to the present to make “Al’s Famous Fatburgers” at a price that yields him a fat profit.
Before long he conceives a greater ambition. He decides he must save JFK. He makes his way to Dallas and stalks Oswald. Advanced lung cancer, however, forces him back to the present, and to the realization that he is not strong enough to finish the job. So he recruits young Maine high school English teacher Jake Epping, a divorced man with nothing to lose and a world of accolades to gain.
Jake is unsure, at first; there are so many perils. But Al argues that Kennedy’s assassination was one of the watershed moments of the 20th century. “If you ever wanted to change the world,” he tells Jake, “this is your chance. Save Kennedy, save his brother. Save Martin Luther King. Stop the race riots. Stop Vietnam, maybe. Get rid of one wretched waif, buddy, and you could save millions of lives.”
It is a convincing pitch, especially when Jake realizes that if things go wrong, he can simply start over with a reset. After some hesitation, he proceeds through the pantry door and into 1958. His maiden voyage provides an interesting glimpse into midcentury America. Cars are bigger and more imaginatively designed. Food tastes a lot richer without preservatives. Air pollution is rife, however, and people smoke everywhere. Accents are more pronounced, Jake finds, because TV has not yet eroded regional differences. A gallon of gas costs 19.9 cents; a restaurant meatloaf with apple pie is 95 cents.
His first order of business is to make sure that if he kills Oswald, and then returns to the present, the change will stick. Hence a test run, which proves to have nettlesome consequences. Then he needs to confirm that Oswald acted alone; it would be pointless to dispatch the Texan and find that someone else has shot the president.
Unfortunately, there are consequences to messing with the past. One is the “butterfly effect”: Even small, seemingly inconsequential actions can change lives and events unpredictably. Another is that the past apparently does not want to be changed – it is “obdurate” – and puts all sorts of obstacles into his path.
The problem of moving the narrative through five years is partly solved by introducing a love interest for Jake. Sadie is the librarian at the school where Jake lands a teaching job. Their romance moves on a parallel track with the Oswald story until, finally, they converge, with tragic consequences for both – and for the nation.
To say more would be to spoil key plot elements, but it is to Mr. King’s credit as a storyteller that he makes the characters breathe and the narrative vibrate with
a whopping good story. The way he pulls “11/22/63” together is a marvel of construction and imagination.