Trish put me up to buying this book in Kindle format when it went on sale for $3.99. I've gotta say she scared me a bit when she said the book was getting too intense and she might need to put it in the freezer. :-) But it ended up being a great read.
This is the first Stephen King novel I've read in years. This author is really hit or miss for me. He's created some novels I loved (e.g. The Stand, The Shining, The Dead Zone) and some I really disliked (e.g. Insomnia, It). So I wasn't quite sure what to expect. But I loved it -- it's now my favorite King novel. It had all the qualities I love about his work -- amazing writing skill, an imaginative plot, suspense, interesting character development, and a memorable narrative voice. And I saw none of what I've disliked about some of his books: lack of narrative focus with random excursions into disgusting or controversial crap just to keep your attention.
Jake Epping is a high school English teacher who moonlights teaching adult GED prep classes. He had one GED student he'll never forget, disabled high school janitor Harry Dunning. Harry's essay, "A Day That Changed My Life," began:
It wasnt a day but a night. The night that change my life was the night my father murdirt my mother and two brothers and hurt me bad. He hurt my sister too, so bad she went into a comah. In three years she died without waking up. Her name was Ellen and I loved her very much. She love to pick flouers and put them in vayses.Two years after Harry's essay, Jake visits his friend Al Templeton, proprietor of his favorite local diner. Al has aged uncannily in a couple of days. He also has a strange secret to share, and he wants to send Jake on a mission. If he succeeds, Jake may be able to prevent the horrific event that shattered Harry's life and avert another local tragedy. But his ultimate goal is much broader in scope -- he wants to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Al has studied his history carefully. He believes that preventing Kennedy's death may have a domino effect, averting other events including the murder of Martin Luther King and the U.S. war in Vietnam.
Soon Jake travels through a wormhole in time, carrying Al's historical notes, and assumes a new identity: George Amberson. During his five-year odyssey, he stalks Lee Harvey Oswald, affects people's lives, and falls in love. But the past is obdurate (we hear that line almost ad nauseum, actually) -- there are forces actively fighting George's attempts to change history. And in the back of his mind, he wonders about the potential effect of his actions on the future. When he returns to 2011, will he find a world that's been altered in unexpected ways?
Despite my ambivalent relationship with Stephen King, this book was an easy sell with me. Time travel? Wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff? Alternate history? Yes please!
Stephen King did a copious amount of research on the late 1950s and early 1960s, and his attention to historical detail makes the alternate history believable and fascinating. I was even more impressed with his meticulous attention to small details about popular culture, everyday life in that period, and the zeitgeist of the era. He created a vibrant sense of time and place, making it easy to become absorbed in George Amberson's world.
I thoroughly enjoyed living inside this character's head for a while -- he's smart, funny, compassionate, and flawed. The growing conflict between his dedication to his mission and his growing affection for the people of Jodie, Texas in the early 1960s -- along with his blossoming romance with a beautiful high school librarian -- created a compelling story. The secondary characters -- including Harry, Al, Mimi, Deke, Mike, and Sadie -- are well developed and quickly earned my affection. And while this isn't a horror story per se, there were a few of the mysterious, surreal, dark touches -- like the Yellow Card Man and "Jimla" -- that I see as being among King's trademarks.
These facets of the novel, along with the suspenseful twists in the plot, made this book damn hard to put down. And I've actually missed the company of these characters since I finished the book. That's probably one of the highest compliments I can give a novel.
Rating: 5/5 Stars
Other Reviews of 11/22/63: Love, Laughter, & a Touch of Insanity; Book Chatter; Fizzy Thoughts; Leeswammes' Blog; Did I Miss Yours?
Upcoming Reviews on this Blog: Pan's Labyrinth; Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick