It took me nearly a month to listen to all 30+ hours of Stephen King's latest novel, 11/22/63, but I firmly believe that every single minute of this epic novel was worth it. King has masterfully recreated the "the Land of Ago," as our narrator, a schoolteacher in Maine named Jake Epping, fondly refers to it. Epping's first-person narration is captured on the audio version of this title by the impeccable Craig Wasson, whose skillful narration is steady throughout the text, though charged with emotion as appropriate. And it is often appropriate.
See, it all starts like this: Jake goes to his Al's Diner to celebrate the end of a school year, and one thing leads to another, and just like that, poof!, Al has lung cancer and his dying wish is that Jake go back in time to 1958 to stop the assassination of JFK. Sounds impossible, but a handy little rabbit hole that links modern times to September of 1958 makes it all possible.
And so, not to spoil anything, because it's pretty obvious, Jake goes. He tinkers, he tampers, he checks back on 2011 to see how his changes are holding up in the future. Or the present. Whatever it is. And he sets off to do just what Al asked him to: prevent the assassination of JFK on that fateful date, 11/22/63, in Dealey Plaza.
Jake lives in the Land of Ago for five years -- between the rabbit hole entrance of 1958 and that memorable date in 1963 -- and he has, to put it mildly, time to kill. This life he leads becomes as much the story of 11/22/63 as the mission to save Kennedy, as Jake finds himself pulled further and further into the obdurate past.
King explores the once-upon-a-time land of mid-century America in full detail, recounting a time in which the root beer is rootier, the milk is creamier, the people are more trusting, and the gender norms are vastly different. But 11/22/63 is about more than the past, encompassing territories that cannot be defined by any one time period: love, and loss, and fear, and knowledge, and community.
Given, too, that this is a novel of time travel, both King and Jake struggle with the implications of time travel, of how the past influences the future, how delicately the future is woven, and how important even the smallest of actions may be. These concepts, though not groundbreaking, are thought-provoking; if the butterfly effect is as real as we can imagine, 11/22/63 forces us to consider, what am I influencing right now by doing exactly what I am doing? Is there an alternate version of this reality in which I made different choices? Or took a fateful step one fateful second later, and changed the course of history?
I could go on and on about the subjects King explores here, but I won't, because unlike King, I lack the ability to ramble on in detailed sidepaths without losing my readers. And that's assuming you've even made it this far. So I'll sum up: King, in short, is a master of his craft. 11/22/63 is long, but never lengthy, detailed, but never tedious. Subplots and side stories abound, but each one is relevant in its own way.
King's clever use of foreshadowing throughout all the twists and turns of this complex story make him one sneaky bastard in my book, but this trick is successful in keeping the pages turning: each hint of what is to come, each delicate implication of how things might net out sent my heart a-palpitatin'. Maybe that's something King is known for; as this is my first King novel, I wouldn't know. But I do know that despite the 30+ hours (or 900+ pages, for those reading in print), I was sad to hear (or see, as the case may be) this one end, and I'll certainly be looking out for more King in the future.
Thanks to Simon & Schuster Audio for providing a copy of this title for my review, which, by the way, includes King himself reading the afterword.
Thoughts from other bookworms:
The Book Case
11/22/63 | Stephen King, nar. Craig Wasson | Simon & Schuster Audio| 9781442344280 | $75.00 Audio CD | 30 CDs, 31 hrs | November 2011 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you