Thursday, November 24, 2011

Book Review: 11-22-63 by Stephen King

The Publisher's Summary

On November 22, 1963, three shots rang out in Dallas, President Kennedy died, and the world changed. What if you could change it back?
In this brilliantly conceived tour de force, Stephen King - who has absorbed the social, political, and popular culture of his generation more imaginatively and thoroughly than any other writer - takes listeners on an incredible journey into the past and the possibility of altering it.
It begins with Jake Epping, a 35-year-old English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching GED classes. He asks his students to write about an event that changed their lives, and one essay blows him away: a gruesome, harrowing story about the night more than 50 years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a sledgehammer. Reading the essay is a watershed moment for Jake, his life - like Harry’s, like America’s in 1963 - turning on a dime.
Not much later his friend Al, who owns the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to the past, a particular day in 1958. And Al enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession - to prevent the Kennedy assassination.
So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson, in a different world - of Ike and JFK and Elvis, of big American cars and sock hops and cigarette smoke everywhere. From the dank little city of Derry, Maine (where there’s Dunning business to conduct), to the warmhearted small town of Jodie, Texas, where Jake falls dangerously in love, every turn is leading, eventually of course, to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and to Dallas, where the past becomes heart-stoppingly suspenseful - and where history might not be history anymore. Time-travel has never been so believable. Or so terrifying.

I'm not generally a fan of Stephen King. I appreciate his work, his talent for storytelling and his ability to remain a mainstream popular author who hasn't gone the way of mass-producing novels written by others and re-branded as his own work (James Patterson I'm looking at you). Stephen King seems to write all of his own novels and each one can stand on their own with any name on the cover. I am not, however, a fan of the horror genre - finding it way more enjoyable to read slightly lighter material than tomes about psychopaths trying to kill their children or the dead rising from graves with murderous intent. Nothing personal Mr. King, just not my scene.

Stephen King's new novel however is neither dark nor horrific. 11-22-63 is firmly in the science-fiction realm. A portal in the pantry of a run-down, soon to be demolished diner deposits the time traveler to September 1958, each return trip down the "rabbit hole" resets the timeline - back to that same autumn afternoon. Al has changed the past with observable impact on the future. What if we (or in this case Jake Epping) could change history and save the President on that November afternoon back in 1963? Could Oswald be stopped? To what end? Yes, the past can be changed, Jake is able to convince himself of that when he 'saves' the Dunning family - but the past is resistant to change and the universe will resist his efforts.

On skim through the publisher's summary and I had already spent the credit and cued up the four-part download of 11-22-63. Within the first 20 minutes of the audiobook I was hooked on the storyline. Willing suspension of disbelief and more - the plotline was enthralling and consuming. With each change to the past, in some cases the change was simply the addition of George Amberson (Jake Epping), one could feel the strings of the timeline change. Small changes, the butterfly effect - of a man who should not exist in that time period.

Al went down the rabbit hole hundreds, if not thousands of times each trip, no matter how long he remained in the past, a mere 2 minutes passed in the present. All the while we wonder, if Jake saves Kennedy in Dallas is there a future for him to go back to in Maine?

Possible vs plausible - this novel is neither, which was part of the draw for me. What if we could change the past? What if Kennedy lived? Would we have avoided Vietnam? Would the twin-towers still stand in lower Manhattan? The cold war of the 80's averted? How might history be interconnected?

My one complaint about this novel (audiobook) is the speed of the narration. Craig Wasson's cadence was off when played at 1x speed. There were pauses in the narration that while intended to be part of the dramatic affect seemed overly long - and distracting. There were several times I thought my playback had paused for an incoming call, only to have the narration pick up again. I was able to solve this by listening to the novel at a higher speed - but I don't think I would have enjoyed the novel as much if I had to listen at the 1x speed for all 31 hours of this novel. Secondly, Mr Wasson's Maine and Boston accents left quite a lot to be desired - both sounded somewhat forced and unconvincing. The remainder of the narration was well executed - even the female voices were feminine without sounding forced or mocking.

In all I'm giving 11-22-63 a strong 4.5 stars on a 5 point scale - even for folks like me who generally aren't naturally drawn to Stephen King novels.It was well worth the audible credit and the  20 or so (factoring in the 2x playback - which isn't really double-time) hour investment for the uniqueness and richness of the story. Ultimately I powered through the audiobook in about 5 days start to finish - with more than a couple sessions sitting in the car at my destination waiting for a suitable stopping point. It's been a while since I had one of 'those' novels on my mind. Kudos Mr. King  (and thank you).

11-22-63 was written by Stephen King and produced by Simon & Schuster Audio, copyright 11/08/2011. 11-22-63 was narrated by  Craig Wasson and has a runtime of 30 hours 44 minutes.

1 comment:

Canada said...

I was always put off of Stephen King as a reader, mostly because of the creepy movies that came from his books, but this was different. This book was almost historical fiction with a time travel twist, and Stephen King makes every detail come alive, and I blew through it, crying like a schoolgirl as I read the last page. I couldn't recommend it more highly!