Past and present King

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am

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11.22.63
by Stephen King
Scribner

Jake Epping, the hero of Stephen King's whopping (740-page) new novel, is a man on a mission. His crusade, which Epping accepts with disarming speed, is to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on King's titular date: in old-fangled form, 22nd November 1963.

The stumbling blocks? Well, all the things you would expect from reading James Ellroy's superlative American Tabloid or watching Oliver Stone's JFK - mobsters, the CIA, Lee Harvey Oswald, Cubans, magic bullets, and men with strange haircuts. In other words, the usual conspiracy palaver.

But King injects one obstacle that even the free-thinking Stone would reject as too fanciful. Epping, a newly divorced teacher, lives in 2011. Indeed, he wasn't even an embryo in his father's eye when a bullet, supposedly originating from the sixth floor of Dallas' School Book Depository, killed the president. Gadzooks.

It's an intriguing, if hardly original conceit. The deceptively inventive TV show Quantum Leap played a similar history-busting game with Oswald back in 1992. King faces a harder job persuading us that an ordinary Joe like Epping can simply reverse the calendar four decades in the blink of an eye. Wisely, he solves this predicament in much the same way that Harold Ramis explains Bill Murray's never-ending 24 hours in Groundhog Day - by not bothering. Guided by the owner of the local diner (one Al Templeton), Epping simply strolls through the space-time continuum via a wormhole besides an antique refrigerator.

If you think about this too much, it will beggar belief - especially following a non-too-subtle preamble about a long-forgotten murder story that just happens to coincide with Epping's point of entry in the past: Maine in 1958. Then again, Stephen King has never been one to dodge a silly idea in pursuit of a truly unsettling one: pet cemeteries, auto-cannibalism, curses that cause anorexia, even serial killers dressed as clowns. His power as a storyteller derives from his ability to convince you that the strangest concept might just happen. In 11.22.63 this relies on the character leading you through the adventure: normally an everyman with mundane concerns who just happens to encounter vampires, rabid dogs or girls with telekinetic powers.

In this respect, Epping is a classic King narrator. Ordinary to the point of blandness, he is pleasant company. Good-looking, good-humoured and good in bed, he is nevertheless haunted by ghosts in his machine: in this case, alcoholic ex-wife, Christy. King fleshes Epping out with a couple of significant, if unremarkable character traits: a love of dancing and an inability to cry. What convinces you ultimately is the intimate immediacy of his voice. Like King himself, Epping notices the smallest details, makes bad jokes and drops a plethora of cultural names. Some are everyday (Hillary Clinton, Dancing with the Stars), some rather more refined: Paul Bowles and Percy Shelley.

Epping is ripe for an adventure to fill the voids in his life, and 1958 is as good a time as any - indeed, it proves to be better than most. In a knowing nod to Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, Epping is rechristened George Amberson. He encounters an America on the verge of profound social, cultural and political change, but not there just yet. You can detect the seeds of the civil rights movement, feminism, challenges to anti-Semitism and new trends in art, literature and above all music, but most remain underground.

King plots a careful course between these old and new American dreams. His portrait of the past mixes nostalgia - especially for small-town America - with an awareness that this covers a multitude of sins. So casual wife beating rubs shoulders with a small-town rallying round to raise funds for a disfigured young woman. Kindness towards strangers is counterpointed by racial segregation, laissez faire attitudes towards a person's past are ironised by strictly monitored social codes. Domestic abuse might be casual in 1958, but sex never is.

You may be wondering where Kennedy, Oswald and the Grassy Knoll fit into all this. It's a fair question. While Epping's covert investigations take up a considerable part of the narrative (he basically dogs Lee Harvey's footsteps for the last 29 months of his life), they feel curiously muted in contrast to his own adventures - first in Maine, and later in Texas. These, in brief, follow him redirecting the aforementioned murder, falling in love with a librarian (Sadie Clayton, who slowly unravels his true purpose), rediscovering his passion for teaching, changing the lives of several young students and trying to avoid grievous bodily harm at the hands of some very annoyed bookmakers (Epping supplements his income betting on sporting events whose outcomes he knows).

Nevertheless, Oswald is never far from King or Epping's thoughts. It is easy to fathom why the Kennedy assassination has obsessed novelists as good as Ellroy, J.G. Ballard and Philip Kerr: we all know what happened, just not why or even how. For King, some of the questions are practical. Was Oswald the lone gunman? Who wanted Kennedy dead?

The final third of 11.22.63 takes the form of a voyeuristic Mexican stand-off. The reader watches Epping watching Oswald eventually watching Kennedy. Everyone has access to a gun, but the real weapon is surveillance and intelligence: who knows what about whom? The question King ultimately has to address is, who else is watching?

While 11.22.63 builds to a genuinely exciting climax, there are moments when I wonder who exactly is responsible for this - Stephen King or Lee Harvey Oswald? In the end, I decide it's a bit of both. While it's fun to discover who (if anyone) was aiming a rifle at John F. Kennedy, I don't think King's primary purpose is in expounding his theory of the Kennedy assassination so much as exploring lines of cause and effect, fate and destiny - like any good storyteller would be. Is the past changeable?

King's real concern is asking how one person affects another's life. This can be in ways that are great and small. One of the gloomier aspects of his gloomy conclusion is that change often requires violence, whether on the personal or global scale.

11.22.63 underlines all of its author's powers as a novelist, while also exposing some of his faults. The 21st-century Stephen King is a strangely schizophrenic beast - both populist and high-minded, artless and self-conscious. He is as ambitious a storyteller as anyone out there, but seems simultaneously anxious not to be seen indulging in anything approaching 'fancy-schmancy' literature.

Despite its successfully epic nature, 11.22.63 reminds of another work by King, one of his briefest: the short story, Rita Harlow and the Shawshank Redemption. Both feature good but flawed men imprisoned by time and place. Both are guided by a wiser, older man, both use literature to come to the aid of wilder younger men and both are haunted by memories of alcoholism and marital breakdown. Both find redemption by making better choices, by learning the lessons of the past and ultimately by escaping to a brighter future.

By the end of 11.22.63, I'm still unsure whether he has achieved more in 740 pages than The Shawshank Redemption's 94. Sometimes in fiction as in life, more is less and less is simply more.