It's a question that has intrigued philosophers, historians and science-fiction writers for centuries: If you could travel back in time and stop a great atrocity, would you? Simple, right? If they thought it would prevent the Holocaust, who wouldn't jump at the chance to travel to early-1930s Germany and thwart Adolf Hitler?
But maybe it's not that simple. In Ray Bradbury's seminal 1952 short story "A Sound of Thunder," a hunter with dreams of bagging a T. rex travels to the past and back again, only to find that by accidentally stepping on a butterfly he has put into motion a chain of events that culminates in the election of a fascist president of the United States. Today, most of us have heard the term "butterfly effect." Or, as Stephen King puts it in 11/22/63, "Who can know when life hangs in the balance, or why? ... Life turns on a dime."
In King's new novel, Jake Epping, a Maine high school teacher, is slowly putting his life together after a divorce from his recovering alcoholic wife. He's a regular patron at an unpopular retro-style diner and friends with its gruff but good-natured owner, Al, recently diagnosed with lung cancer. Jake is understandably shocked when Al reveals that the restaurant's pantry contains a wormhole that transports anyone who steps through it directly to the year 1958. But he finds himself unable to deny Al's dying wish: that Jake travel back in time to Dallas to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Clearly, it's a tall order, but the task turns out to be even more Herculean than it sounds. "The past is obdurate," Jake quickly discovers as he careens from Maine to Florida to Louisiana to Texas. "It doesn't want to change."
King might always be best known as a diabolical and peerless horror writer, but his more recent novels have proved he's unwilling to be walled in by genre. Although 11/22/63 combines the page-turning suspense of Dolores Claiborne with the history-obsessed literary fiction of Hearts in Atlantis, it is really unlike anything King has written before.
It's also, quite possibly, his most ambitious and accomplished novel to date. Jake proves to be an exceedingly memorable and sympathetic character; sensitive but tough, refreshingly unafraid to be afraid. King's cinematic narrative pacing, which has kept readers up past their bedtimes for decades, is similarly flawless; the book is his most exciting in several years. 11/22/63 reads faster than probably any 800-page novel you've encountered.
The writer's most remarkable achievement in 11/22/63 is his vivid, near-perfect, execution of setting. It's tempting for any writer of King's generation to romanticize the mid-20th century. And, to be sure, an unmistakable air of nostalgia permeates the book. But King, not unexpectedly, relishes blowing the lid off the darker side of the era, and his depictions of racism, misogyny and religious intolerance are as frightening as anything in Carrie or It.
A half-century after the unthinkable events of Dealey Plaza, the murder of America's 35th president remains an open wound. It's not an easy subject to broach sensitively, particularly in the context of a science-fiction thriller. But with 11/22/63, King has managed to craft an exciting, plot-driven novel that's also a smart, sometimes heartbreaking reflection on what's left of the American dream.
The slaying of John F. Kennedy was just the first in a long succession of tragedies that broke the nation's heart in the 1960s. Before the decade was over, Americans were forced to come to terms with more assassinations, bloody race riots and a war that seemed like it would never end. Almost 40 years after his literary debut, Stephen King has taken on what might well be the root of modern American horror — the day a country learned that its worst nightmares really could come true, and that truth can be much scarier than fiction.