Time travel is about knowing what happens next. Visiting the future means finding out where the story goes; visiting the past means getting to game the system. The fantasy offers a safety humans are rarely allowed, the gift of reading the morning paper without fear of unpleasant surprises. Stephen King has made a career out of exploiting such surprises, but his greatest talent as a writer is in creating places readers want to visit, monsters and all. The late ’50s and early ’60s of 11/22/63 are dangerous, full of bad towns and worse people, but they’re also warm, welcoming, and whole. King has used this setting before, and he returns to it here in a novel that’s simultaneously epic and comfortingly intimate. His version of “The Land of Ago” is an intoxicating mix of fact and fiction, created in the service of a terrific tale.
The premise sounds more like a philosophy problem than a story hook: What if you could stop President John F. Kennedy from being assassinated? King wastes little time in getting to the point: Jake Epping is a high-school English teacher who discovers a portal to 1958 in the pantry of a local diner. After a test run, Epping sets up shop in a small Texas town and spends years tracking the movements of Lee Harvey Oswald, determined to prevent him from making that fatal shot in November 1963. As he waits, he grows more attached to the locals, including a young woman who throws his quest into doubt, and he starts to wonder which is more important: the future he wants to save, or the past that’s become his present?
World-building is one of King’s strengths, but internal consistency in fantastical environments is one of his weaknesses. The basic rules of Jake’s Magical Pantry are simple and fascinating: Each trip goes back to the same point in the past, and each new trip resets the previous one. But the explanation of how this all works is a bit fuzzy, and the novel’s continued harping on the way “the past harmonizes with itself” doesn’t have much impact, beyond drawing attention to certain narrative loops. And Jake as a character is as thin as the paper his story is printed on, which makes it difficult to understand why he’s willing to engage in such a long, dangerous mission.
None of these are major issues, however, and the novel’s strengths more than overcome its weaknesses. As with Under The Dome, the pacing is brisk throughout, but where that novel sometimes gave its cast short shrift, 11/22/63 is full of well-drawn caricatures and likeable leads. King’s Oswald is a nasty, weasely man, and without ever overstating it, King captures the fascination of spying on history as it unfolds, listening to conversations that would only become important in retrospect. The heart of the novel is in the life Epping builds himself as he waits to fulfill what he believes is his destiny, in a past that’s romantic, yet cynical about the limits of romance. 11/22/63 is King’s best novel in years, minimizing his flaws and embracing the haunting, melancholic tone that has come to define his work. It reminds us that even if we can’t change the past, that won’t stop us from trying; even if we can erase our mistakes, we can never forget what we’ve lost.