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Is 11.22.63 Stephen King’s best novel to date?

January 5, 2012

I have always been a fan of Stephen King’s although no more so than now. His latest novel 11.22.63 is really the best narrative he has come up with to date in my opinion. Although he uses the trope of a time portal this could not really be considered a sci-fi novel or a techno-thriller along the lines of Michael Crichton. No, in keeping with other speculative fiction by this master story teller, King dispenses with any tedious technical explanations and gets right down to business.

The JFK assassination saga has got old yet the plot of 11.22.63 is intriguing and fast paced, even for such a lengthy novel. When an English teacher (something which the character, King and I and have in common along with creative writing, although that’s where the comparison ends) named Jake Epping learn of a time portal situated at the back of a butcher’s shop. The local butcher of Lisbon Maine, Al Templeton, takes advantage of this windfall by going back to September 9, 1958, where the portal is stuck, so as to buy cheap meat. After he unaccountably takes ill and ages beyond his years, he summons our English teacher Jake Epping and advises him to go back and save JFK and perhaps alter history for the better.

He does go back in time and settles down as an English teacher and falls in love. The context of the late fifties and early sixties is uncannily recaptured by King through meticulous research and an eye for relevant detail. King informs us that his wife (also a novelist and English teacher) saw JFK shortly before his death. King himself was only a teenager at the time of the assassination and I have spoken of my own experience during that star crossed time –space. I was an Aussie kid under ten who was living in JFK’s hometown of Brookline (a suburb of Boston) Massachusetts where my father attended the famous technological temple of MIT. That’s another story of course yet it gives me a sense of closeness to the narrative and has given me further inspiration to write my own JFK novel in future.

Back to 11.22.63, King really gets into alternative history when his fictional alter ego Jake foils the assassination with unintended consequences. When he deflects Oswald’s aim the love of Jake’s (other) life is inadvertently killed. Later Jake is consoled by both Jackie and JFK, the former telling him,” If only I could go back and changes things, I would.” At this a bemused Jake tells himself in a way entirely credible with respect to the character and through line, “No, that’s my job.”

At the climax events speed up as if warped by the portal and we get a picture of how it would be if the late president had escaped death on that dark November day. We learn that without the sympathy generated by the assassination as well as the efforts of the persuasive President Johnson, anti-discrimination laws would not have come into effect, and a later President George Wallace nukes Vietnam so as to end that debilitating war. Here King’s research through discussions with close JFK aide Richard Goodwin (who spoke at my local primary school in Brookline while I was in attendance during this dramatic time frame) and other source material comes into play.  It’s funny but Goodwin also worked for JFK’s successor President Lyn don Johnson or LBJ. It has been said with respect to important anti-discrimination and other legislation that “Kennedy promised and Johnson delivered” and this too is shown in the novel. This alternate history again showcases the law of unintended consequences writ large. This is a world not as it is but how it could be yet one hardly ideal or desirable.

In conclusion I would rate this novel a great read and simply the best book by Stephen King in my experience and in my judgment. If you pick it up you will find it hard to put down and I can hardly wait for the coming film by acclaimed director Jonathan Demme.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2012 9:47 am

    If 11/22/63 is not his best book, it’s up there at the top. I just finished it a few days ago and can’t get it out of my mind. You do keep wondering “what if?” It was amazing to learn in the Afterword that he has wanted to write this book for a number of years. In my opinion, King doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves.

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