11/22/63 is a meditation on memory, love, loss, free will and necessity. It's a blunderbuss of a book, rife with answers to questions: Can one man make a difference? Can history be changed, or does it snap back on itself like a rubber band? Does love conquer all? (The big stuff)…It all adds up to one of the best time-travel stories since H. G. Wells. King has captured something wonderful. Could it be the bottomlessness of reality? The closer you get to history, the more mysterious it becomes. He has written a deeply romantic and pessimistic book. It's romantic about the real possibility of love, and pessimistic about everything else.
The New York Times Book Review
King pulls off a sustained high-wire act of storytelling trickery…The pages of 11/22/63 fly by, filled with immediacy, pathos and suspense. It takes great brazenness to go anywhere near this subject matter. But it takes great skill to make this story even remotely credible. Mr. King makes it all look easy, which is surely his book's fanciest trick.
The New York Times
In an NPR interview, Stephen King asserted that for baby boomers, "11/22/63 was our 9/11." Certainly, for all of us, the assassination of John F. Kennedy forms part of our national mythos, so it seems only natural that a writer of King's stature would become obsessed with this event. In fact, he began grappling with the material a full forty years ago, but it was only recently that he felt mature enough to construct this large-scale novel. And mammoth it is: Its 864 pages reveal the epic story of two men who go back into time to prevent the killing of JFK by Lee Harvey Oswald. In King's hands, this real-life event isn't just a plot device; it is the key to a full immersion into Cold War America and the lives and motivations of numerous people, including the assassin himself. Unlike most people, I'm not a devotee of Stephen King's horror tales (I've never been drawn to the genre), but for me, 11/22/63 shows true worth. The writing is supple, the suspense unforced, and the atmosphere accurately evokes the times.
R.J. Wilson, Bookseller, #1002, New York NY
High school English teacher Jake Epping has his work cut out for him in King’s entertaining SF romantic thriller. Al Templeton, the proprietor of Al’s Diner in Lisbon Falls, Maine, has discovered a temporal “rabbit hole” in the diner’s storage room that leads to a point in the past—11:58 a.m. September 9, 1958, to be precise. Each time you go through the rabbit hole, according to Al, only two minutes have elapsed when you return to 2011, no matter how long your stay; furthermore, history resets itself each time you return to that morning 53 years ago. Al persuades Jake to take a brief, exploratory trip through the rabbit hole into 1958 Lisbon Falls. After Jake’s return, a suddenly older and sick-looking Al confesses that he spent several years in this bygone world, in an effort to prevent President Kennedy’s assassination, but because he contracted lung cancer, he was unable to fulfill his history-changing mission. “You can go back, and you can stop” the assassination, he tells Jake. Jake, with only an alcoholic ex-wife by way of family, is inclined to honor his dying friend’s request to save JFK, but he also has a personal reason to venture into the past. A night school student of his, school janitor Harry Dunning, recently turned in an autobiographical essay describing how on Halloween night 1958 Dunning’s father took a hammer to Dunning’s mother and other family members with, in some cases, fatal results. An attempt to head off this smaller tragedy provides a test case for Jake, to see if he can alter the past for the better. Hundreds of pages later, once over the initial hurdles, Jake is working under a pseudonym as a high school teacher in Jodie, Tex., an idyllic community north of Dallas. Knowing who’s going to win sporting events like the World Series comes in handy when he’s short of funds, though this ability to foretell the future turns out to have a downside. Indeed, the past, as Jake discovers to his peril, has an uncanny, sometimes violent way of resisting change, of putting obstacles in the way of anyone who dares fiddle with it. The author of Carrie knows well how to spice the action with horrific shivers. In Jodie, Jake meets a fellow teacher, Sadie Dunhill, who’s estranged from her husband, a religious fanatic with serious sexual hangups. Jake and Sadie fall in love, but their relationship has its difficulties, not least because Jake is reluctant to tell Sadie his real identity or reason for being in Texas. Clearly inspired by Jack Finney’s classic Time and Again, King smoothly blends their romance into the main story line, setting up the bittersweet ending that’s as apt as it is surprising. He also does a fine job evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of the late ’50s and early ’60s. The root beer even tastes better back then. By early 1963, Jake is zeroing in on a certain former U.S. Marine who defected to the Soviet Union and has recently returned to the U.S. with his Russian wife. Relying on Al’s judgment, Jake is only about 75% sure that Lee Harvey Oswald alone shot JFK, so he spends much time trying to ascertain whether Oswald is part of a conspiracy. Jake admits to not having researched the Kennedy assassination while still in 2011 Maine. If he had, he might’ve given up after concluding that it would be hopeless to try to stop, say, the Mafia, or the CIA, or Vice President Johnson from killing Kennedy. On the other hand, the plot would’ve been a lot less interesting if Jake, convinced on entering the past that Oswald was the sole gunman, felt compelled to eliminate Oswald long before that pathetic loser settled into his sniper’s nest in the Texas School Book Depository, toward which Jake winds up racing on the morning of November 22, 1963. In an afterword, King puts the probability that Oswald acted alone at “ninety-eight percent, maybe even ninety-nine.” “It is very, very difficult for a reasonable person to believe otherwise,” he adds. King cites several major books he consulted, but omits what I consider the definitive tome on the subject, Vincent Bugliosi’s Edgar-winning Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Norton, 2007). Bugliosi, who makes an overwhelming case in my view that the Warren Commission essentially got it right, covers the same ground as a book King does mention, Gerald Posner’s Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (Random, 2003), then goes on to destroy the arguments of the conspiracy theorists, with wit and ridicule as weapons. Of course, there will always be intelligent and otherwise reasonable people, like PW’s anonymous reviewer of Reclaiming History and King’s wife, novelist Tabitha King (a life-long “contrarian,” King tells us), who side with the host of cranks emotionally invested in believing Oswald was the patsy he claimed. Those folks may have a problem with this suspenseful time-travel epic, but the rest of us will happily follow well-meaning, good-hearted Jake Epping, the anti-Oswald if you will, on his quixotic quest. Peter Cannon is PW’s Mystery/Thriller reviews editor.
In King's latest, his first full-length novel since 2009's Under the Dome, the horror master ventures into sf. Maine restaurant owner Al tells high school English teacher Jake Epping that there's a time portal to the year 1958 in his diner. Al has terminal cancer and asks Jake to grant his dying wish: go back in time and prevent the 1963 assassination of JFK. Jake's travels take him first to Derry, ME—the fictional (and creepy) setting of King's 1986 blockbuster It—to try to stop the horrific 1958 murder of a family. Later, he heads to Texas, where he bides his time—teaching in a small town, where he falls for school librarian Sadie Dunhill—and keeps tabs on the thuggish Lee Harvey Oswald. It all leads to an inevitable climax at the Book Depository and an outcome that changes American history. VERDICT Though this hefty novel starts strong, diving energetically into the story and savoring the possibilities of time travel, the middle drags a bit—particularly during Jake's small-town life in Texas. Still, King remains an excellent storyteller, and his evocation of mid-20th-century America is deft. Alternate-history buffs will especially enjoy the twist ending. Film rights have been optioned by Jonathan Demme (of Silence of the Lambs fame). [See Prepub Alert, 5/23/11.]—David Rapp, Library Journal
King (Under the Dome, 2009, etc.) adds counterfactual historian to his list of occupations. Well, not exactly: The author is really turning in a sturdy, customarily massive exercise in time travel that just happens to involve the possibility of altering history. Didn't Star Trek tell us not to do that? Yes, but no matter: Up in his beloved Maine, which he celebrates eloquently here ("For the first time since I'd topped that rise on Route 7 and saw Dery hulking on the west bank of the Kenduskeag, I was happy"), King follows his own rules. In this romp, Jake Epping, a high-school English teacher (vintage King, that detail), slowly comes to see the opportunity to alter the fate of a friend who, in one reality, is hale and hearty but in another dying of cancer, no thanks to a lifetime of puffing unfiltered cigarettes. Epping discovers a time portal tucked away in a storeroom--don't ask why there--and zips back to 1958, where not just his friend but practically everyone including the family pets smokes: "I unrolled my window to get away from the cigarette smog a little and watched a different world roll by." A different world indeed: In this one, Jake, a sort of sad sack back in Reality 1, finds love and a new identity in Reality 2. Not just that, but he now sees an opportunity to unmake the past by inserting himself into some ugly business involving Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, various representatives of the military-industrial-intelligence complex and JFK in Dallas in the fall of 1963. It would be spoiling things to reveal how things turn out; suffice it to say that any change in Reality 2 will produce a change in Reality 1, not to mention that Oswald may have been a patsy, just as he claimed--or maybe not. King's vision of one outcome of the Kennedy assassination plot reminds us of what might have been--that is, almost certainly a better present than the one in which we're all actually living. "If you want to know what political extremism can lead to," warns King in an afterword, "look at the Zapruder film." Though his scenarios aren't always plausible in strictest terms, King's imagination, as always, yields a most satisfying yarn.