Stephen King has something for everybody. For a highbrow critic like Harold Bloom, who condemned King “an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis,” he offers a punching bag. For a certain type of highbrow reader, he offers a handy way to establish populist bona fides. When Nabokov wrote, in an essay on Jekyll and Hyde, “I am not one of those college professors who coyly boasts [sic] of enjoying detective stories,” he had this type in mind. For everyone else, King offers escape, or even respite, from reality. Pure entertainment. The sales figures bear this out. The cinematic adaptations needn’t even be named. Chances are you’ve had nightmares about one or two or most of them.
I state the obvious here because, never having read King before his new 11/22/63, I had every expectation of falling into one of these camps. My ignorance isn’t intended as a handy way to establish elitist bona fides. I’d always wanted to read King. As a kid I got a few pages into It before my mom confiscated it, having chanced to see the sentence, “The fish had eaten this unfortunate gentleman’s eyes, three of his fingers, his penis, and most of his left foot.” Later, my grandma confiscated Gerald’s Game before I even started it. It was, needless to say, her own copy.
11/22/63 isn’t a horror story, though part of it is set in the same clown-haunted Derry, Maine, in which It opens. King’s much-bruited “sense of place,” his Maine, may be studied by the dumbed-down academe of the future the way Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha is now, to the dismay of Harold Bloom’s corpse. In 11/22/63 the sense of place is replaced with a sense of time. The novel is about Jake Epping, a high school English teacher who travels into the past to prevent the Kennedy assassination. Its subject, and in certain important ways its main character, is time itself. It reveals King as an almost willfully mediocre prose stylist, a great storyteller, and — here’s the complicating surprise — a thoughtful navigator of the questions a curious normal person would have about time, causality, memory, and love.
In other words, King is not Borges. He is your favorite high school English teacher, the one who married once, never left town, devoted his life to kids, and inquired as deeply as his mental equipment permitted into things that matter.
Jake Epping would be a failure by big-city standards, which is why he’s so appealing. His wife’s alcoholism destroyed his marriage (alcoholic King knows whereof he speaks), and the book opens with him slogging, like the Atlantic‘s Professor X, through adult-education comp themes. One of his students writes, painfully and in emblematically crappy prose, of the tragedy that destroyed his family and left him crippled. Soon thereafter, Al, a diner owner of Jake’s acquaintance, suddenly dying of lung cancer, reveals that his pantry is a portal to 1958. Al, who has been using said portal to buy cheap hamburger meat, beseeches Jake to perform a nobler task that occurred to him too late: Save Kennedy in 1963. But Jake, the earnest Everyman, finds he wants to save everyone.
King goes easy on the SF time-travel minutia. He tells the reader only that every time the traveler passes through the portal, his previous emendations to the space-time continuum receive a cosmic stet. If Jake fails on his first try, he may try, try again. Only after a while does he realize things don’t go entirely back to normal. He begins to notice odd coincidences or resonances — he refers to them as the past “harmonizing” with itself — that say something’s not quite right. There are jarring echoes of words and situations; people in the past who resemble, Wizard of Oz-style, people in the present; the déjà vu that makes all of us go a little mad sometimes. In what I suspect is characteristic King fashion, “not quite right” turns out to mean “terrifying.”
I knocked King’s prose. All I mean is that it’s breezy. His figures of speech invoke pop culture. His humor is observational in a folksy way, usually while pretending to impatience with itself. He is probably capable of other registers, but wise enough to know that his target audience — from the wind-ruddied denizens of Vacationland to the regular folk of the greater U.S. — doesn’t want them. More power to him. The trouble for a reviewer is that the tail meat, the twists and turns of his densely plotted and intensively researched story, must be held in reserve. Here’s a teaser: Jake Epping takes the name George Amberson. He stays flush by abusing his knowledge of sporting events; this plot leads to tragedy. He trails Lee Harvey Oswald and peripheral players like the best of G-men, even employing historically accurate surveillance equipment, so that he can be certain the man he has to kill is actually the guilty party. And he falls in love with a lindy-hopping high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill — but whether he saves her is, in the end, an open question.
It’s strange to say a middling stylist like King is a national treasure, but there it is. Even the abysmal H. P. Lovecraft, one of King’s touchstones, enjoys pride of place in the Library of America. What makes King great isn’t his writing, but his knack for prodding the average person to wonder about time, fate, theodicy, and humanity (for King finds the humanity even in an assassin) in a useful, albeit rudimentary, way. The past is obdurate, the book tells us again and again. It doesn’t want to be changed, and will fight violently any attempt to change it. King’s imagination may be weirder and woolier than many of his contemporaries, but the themes explored in 11/22/63 — loss, nostalgia, regret, and wishful thinking — belong to all of us.