11/22/63, by Stephen King

10644930If you could travel back in time to 1958, what would you do? I bet the last thing you’d do is try to stop JFK’s assassination. And yet that’s exactly what the protagonist of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 fixates on when he is introduced to a bizarre portal by a casual acquaintance.

Leaving aside why Jake Epping (the aforementioned protagonist) would upend his life on the word of a guy he barely knows, and leaving aside also why Jake wouldn’t just use his knowledge of the future to collect fabulous wealth and sleep with lots of women (as Biff wisely did in Back to the Future II) — why on earth would JFK’s life be the most important thing to protect? For one thing, JFK was not that great of a president — but Lyndon B. Johnson, who took over the chief seat after the assassination, was a great president. Without LBJ there would have been no Civil Rights Act of 1964, no Voting Rights Act of 1965, no Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (which opened the US to non-Europeans), no Great Society, etc. etc. King’s implicit counter argument is that there also might not be a Vietnam, but that’s really hard to say — the bright minds who pushed the US toward the Vietnam War were Kennedy’s people, and I’m doubtful he would have resisted their advice more than LBJ did.

Even if you want to focus on assassinations, why JFK? Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered not too long afterward, as was Robert Kennedy, JFK’s little brother. There are serious debates about how much of an impact either of these figures would have had — King was already being marginalized because of his opposition to the Vietnam War, and RFK was not a great politician despite his personal charm and idealism — but Epping engages in none of these debates. He takes it as a given that the astonishing miracle of time travel must be given to saving JFK.

Fine. Let’s suppose you do decide to do something major like prevent an assassination, or kill an evil figure, or whatever. When you return to the present, what do you think will happen? Traditionally there are two possible answers to this question. One assumes that history is stubborn and will snap back to its predestined course — so, for instance, Kennedy survives the assassination but then dies of a heart attack the next day. The other approach goes all “A Sound of Thunder” and assumes that the beat of a butterfly’s wing can cause a hurricane in China — i.e., a small change in the past leads to massive shifts in the present.

King boldly chooses yet another course. (Spoiler alert.) Forget about merely altering human history. Instead, changing the past causes volcanoes to explode! And Nazis to reemerge! And dinosaurs to roam the earth! (Ok the last isn’t true but that would’ve been awesome.) In all seriousness the ending of the book, in all its Revelations-like doomsaying, is truly ridiculous.

Fortunately only half of 11/22/63 is about the JFK assassination. The other half is a love story, and while far from a classic it’s actually a pretty decent one, if a little bit thick with the small-town Americana that only white people of a certain age remember nostalgically. (This book would’ve been really interesting if Jake were Chinese — or, heaven forfend, black.) I quite liked Jake’s love interest, Sadie, who is spunky and funny and kind, and not particularly subservient to men. And time-travel love stories have an inherent pathos that is hard for me to resist. This is no Time Traveler’s Wife here — I’m tearing up just thinking about that piece of inspired melodrama — but 11/22/63‘s love story made me happy and sad and wistful all at once.

Oh, and SPOILER ALERT again for my last thought. What I would’ve done at the end of the novel, if I were Jake, was go back through the rabbit hole, find Sadie again, leave JFK alone, and never go back to the future. I’m still not sure why this wasn’t a viable solution.

★★☆☆☆

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The Stand, by Stephen King

6407933-LStephen King’s The Stand is really two stories that fit awkwardly together. The first story, which is superb, describes the spread of a superflu that kills off almost everybody in the world. The second, inferior story is about a dark cult, headed by the Satan-like Randall Flagg, that rises to power in the aftermath of the pandemic.

What’s so odd about The Stand is that these two stories barely intersect. Yes, the good guys and the bad guys are aware of each other, in weird and mystical ways, and the brooding presence of Flagg, like the Eye of Sauron, drives the good guys ever forward. And yes, the two sides engage in a few small skirmishes: a spy here, a roadside encounter there. But for all the buildup to an apocalyptic battle between good and evil, The Stand ends before the battle is even joined. It’s as if the Martians in War of the Worlds had contracted a cold before setting off for Earth.

Nonetheless, The Stand is compulsively readable due to King’s ability to breathe life into a diverse cast of characters: a deaf-mute young man, an ancient black woman who sees visions, a washed-up rocker, etc. While The Stand doesn’t lack for harrowing set pieces (Larry and Rita’s long trek through the Lincoln Tunnel comes to mind), some of the book’s most memorable scenes involve nothing more than a character’s leisurely ruminations, as with Judge Farris’s drive West and Mother Abigail’s farmyard chores while waiting for the good guys to arrive.

Of course, as usual with King, there is also plenty of excess in The Stand, and the flab is worse here because the version I read was the “expanded, complete, and uncut” version. The worst offender by far is a bizarre road trip taken by the Trashcan Man (a pyromaniac) and the Kid (a plain old maniac). But throughout the book it’s easy to identify chapters where King probably could have trimmed a couple of pages. This flabbiness deprives The Stand of the breakneck tension that characterizes King’s best books.

★★★☆☆