Unabashed love for this book. I don’t know that King meant it to be, but for me this is his crowning achievement. I know we true fans are supposed to say “It,” “The Stand,” and “The Dark Tower series” are his greatest, and I won’t dispute claims to this. These tomes establish and develop the mythology that undergirds most of King’s storytelling and thus deserve top honors, but I feel that he puts his mythology to its best use with 11/22/63.
I’m really not capable of writing a review that’s worthy of this book. Perhaps other reviewers can, and I defer to them. This is the only King book I have embraced fully from first page to last. Don’t get me wrong–I’m as big a fan of his writing as anybody. But there’s a quality to his worldview that I don’t agree with completely, a cynical perspective that doesn’t allow for true romance and heroism. The dark parts of human nature seem either to be winning or threatening to win at all times, and the outcome for his characters is somewhat dependent on a roll of the moral dice. In a way, this has always been a strength because it allows King to be honest with his characters and their choices, and we can weigh ourselves against them and wonder, “Would I do the same? Would I make the same choice? Would I be as overwhelmed by this situation as he or she is?” King puts ordinary people in extraordinary situations and allows them to think what we all think but wouldn’t dare speak or even admit to thinking: “If these kids don’t shutup, I’m going to drive this car straight off the cliff,” for instance. I appreciate his honesty about the truth as he sees it, but it doesn’t always endear me to his characters. I feel that with 11/22/63, however, King realized his subject matter was of incredible import and value. He needed to handle this with care. Jake, Sadie, Deke, Ellen, Michael Coslaw, etc., needed to be realistic, yes, but they needed also to represent the best within us. They needed, in some small way, to be archetypal while still having their warts. It’s a delicate balance that needed to be shifted ever so slightly toward an optimistic representation of our better nature, and he does it marvelously. Sadie and Jake/George might be my favorite characters in his entire canon, and that’s saying something because I’ve been in love with his characters before, but never like this.
Gosh, how to even describe the many facets of this book. Spoilers may or may not lie ahead. I’m trying hard not to, but I might not be able to help myself. As I said, I’m not worthy. It transcends genres. Yes, some of his horror tropes are on display, but subtly and played at just the right pitch. There is a genuine supernatural unease about “the past” being “obdurate.” I’m paraphrasing, but Jake says, “The past is obdurate like a turtle’s shell is obdurate. It has to be because the flesh inside is tender.” Gosh, what poetry, and it perfectly describes what Jake experiences–as he changes the past or threatens to, he experiences resistance from time itself. This is the kind of dynamic King is known for–a time travel novel cannot be simply that in King’s hands, nor can revisionist history. There are consequences far beyond Jake’s ken. As a character says in Pet Sematary: “Some things are better off dead.” The book’s final passages explain why, using the idea of harmonies and multiple strings and continuums that hearken to the Path of the Beam from the Dark Tower series. It’s like the quantum foam has teeth. All possible realities touch on each other and threaten to infect each other.
For so much of this novel, however, there is a nostalgic representation of the late 50s and early 60s as King probably remembers them. You can SMELL it. You walk it with Jake. You yearn to be there, to feel it, but there is tough honesty as well. Things are not right. We see the ugliness of segregation, and King obviously has no love for Dallas from that era. But again, the lindy dancing with Sadie, Mike’s performance in “Of Mice and Men”–pure nostalgic mid-20th century America. Then you have the incredibly fascinating and thrilling larger story as Jake spies on and tracks Lee Harvey Oswald to determine if he acted alone or was, as he claimed, a Patsy. You have Jake crossing paths with people who actually lived and breathed in that era. I completely geeked out when he talked with a certain very important historical personage late in the book.
And the consequences for the world of Jake’s actions–wow. I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s a payoff completely worthy of its author.
Okay, this is a spoiler. I won’t give details, but even mentioning the very final scene and how I felt about it may spoil it. It’s the best darned romantic scene he’s ever written, and it’s right and perfect for this book. It brings full and satisfying resolution to Jake’s relationship with Sadie in the best of all possible worlds–the world as it now is and probably was always meant to be. It nearly brought me to tears, but I was in no position to cry at the moment. Not because crying was difficult for me, as it is for Jake, but because I was on dad duty with my kids and didn’t have the chance to cry. I have never been affected by a King book the way this one hit me. It’s by far my favorite King, and as a lifelong fan, that’s saying something.