A reading of 11.22.63 by Stephen King
How often do we think: “If only I could change this”, or, in whatever form, “if only I could have a second chance, go back, and do something different”? Going back, erasing, and changing the past is an old dream, the subject of countless tales and fiction works. Of course there is a second law of thermodynamics, to keep things simple, that says “no-can-do” – but still…
But imagine one could go back, reverse entropy, and travel back in time, would it be possible to change anything? Or, is the past resistant to change, obturate enough to stop, or at least oppose, a time-traveller interfering with what was, and, maybe, should be? And, even if the time traveller could change the past, what would be the cost? Perhaps more ominously: what would be the consequences?
Changing history is a special case. History, they say, is written by “the victors”, whoever they may be. It can also be rewritten, and this without, perhaps because of (not), going back to the past. There is the “official” version, and the “conspiracies”. A long-lasting, and still sinister, such story is that of the assassination of President Kennedy.
Jake Epping, not a crying man, is an English teacher at a high school in a small town in Maine. The year is 2011, and this is the end of term. Jake is, unique among his school colleagues, the customer of Al Templeton, the proud owner of the fat burgers diner. More than just a customer. He’s soon someone with whom Al is about to share a deadly secret. At the back of Al’s diner trailer is an anomaly: a fissure in time. Al has a mission, one he cannot complete, for he is dying of lung cancer. He wants Jake to take over, as he has identified Jake as someone who could, who will, bite at the bait. So Al teaches Jake, explains how this could work, and Jake listens. There is a first trial, then another. On the other side of the fissure it is Spring 1958, and America is young. Jake likes what he sees. He enjoys the fresh taste of root beer, the sweet air. Jake also has a personal objective: to prevent a domestic tragedy and help his friend Harry Dunning. The first leg of the story is there: the killing of Frank Dunning. Jake, armed with Al’s mission and notes, as well as dollars of the time, embarks on the journey.
Saving the Dunning family will take two attempts to get it “right”, or so Jake thinks. Then his personal odyssey will start , on the road to Dallas. For Al’s, now Jake’s, aim is to prevent the assassination of President John Kennedy, on November 22, 1963, nothing less. Jake has five years to adapt, plan, live, and, finally, execute Al’s mission.
Jake follows a route of nostalgia: an all-American Ford Sunliner, overnight stoppages in motels, drive-in cinemas, finally a small town, and an equally small school, in Texas. Later, much later, there will be Dallas and the horror. For a while it is (almost) paradise, his class, football, friends, a girl he falls in love with, America’s early 60’s: (almost) perfection.
Jake decides to stay, he won’t go back to 2011. But, in the end, he does. For fulfilling the mission has unpredictable consequences. When, on the threshold of his desperate return, Jake faces a dystopian 2011, he finally understand what Al had missed: that interfering with the strings of time has a price, and this is proportional to the change.
The novel concludes on a note of hope, an ending for which Stephen King credits his son, Joe Hill, at the end of the book.
11.22.63 is a great novel, to read, reread, and cherish. It is also a book to meditate on, seriously, listening carefully to the voice of its author.