Hodder & Stoughton, p/b, £7.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
History is littered with occasions that, with hindsight, people think changed the future: incidents that if changed, would make the world a different place. Usually we think it would have been better – but there is no way of knowing. A frequent thought is that if Hitler had been killed earlier, or that one of the assassination attempts had succeeded there would have been no Second World War. The SF term for such a pivotal event is a Jonbar Hinge. In 11.22.63, Stephen King considers such an event.
As most people know, the 11th of September 1963 was the date on which President Kennedy was killed in Dallas,Texas. A lot of us remember what we were doing when we first heard the news. I was making peppermint creams to give as Christmas presents. Many have wondered what would have happened if he had survived.
In this novel King gives his narrator, Jake Epping, the opportunity to find out. Jake is a divorced English teacher who frequents a particular burger bar because the food is not only cheap but also good. When he hurries over after an emergency call, Jake is shocked by the owner’s appearance. He has aged considerably and is terminally ill with lung cancer, yet Al Templeton was fit and healthy the day before. Al explains and asks a favour of Jake.
In the back of Al’s store room there is a hole between 2011 and 1958. Al has been using it to go back in time to buy cheap meat. Every time he goes back, the past resets itself so every time is the first time as far as the inhabitants of 1958 are concerned. However long Al spends in the past, only two minutes elapse in the present. Al has proved that it is possible to change the past even though events resist his interference. From press records, Al discovered that a young girl would be crippled in a shooting accident. When he stopped the hunter being in the woods that day, the girl remained healthy although the path of her life followed a similar track. The favour Al wants from Jake is for him to go back and stop the assassination of Kennedy. It would mean living five years in the past. Al tried but was defeated by his illness. Jake agrees.
From this point the novel becomes a mixture of genres. The main thrust is that of a ‘stranger in a strange land’. However much historical research is done, hearsay is never a substitute for the real thing. Jake is going back to before he was born so doesn’t even have his own memories to help him. He has to pick his way through an alien landscape without making too many mistakes. Although he has the facility of going back and starting again he is actually living those years. King’s research, as far as I am aware, is immaculate. On top of Jake’s mission is layered romance. Although his intention had been to interact as little as possible with the past, he meets Sadie and falls in love (five years is a long time to stay aloof). It is this section that gives the book its humanity as a lot of the plot is already known and Jake is following a well marked trail.
To complete his mission, he needs to prove that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone; otherwise taking him out of the equation too soon would allow conspirators to put someone else in place to carry out the deed. This means shadowing Oswald, being in places where he will be, watching unobtrusively, trying not to come to the attention of the authorities who also have Oswald under surveillance as a dissident (he had spent time as a defector in Russia and now plans to emigrate to Cuba).
Then there is history itself. It does not want to change. It is like an elastic band. Jake is distorting it; history wants to snap back into its proper conformation. Change puts obstacles in Jake’s path. It is as if it knows what he plans and will go all out to stop him.
As with so many of King’s novels, this is a big book (734 pages). Perhaps it could be reduced in length by judicial pruning but as King is a consummate story-teller, it flows easily. Ultimately, it is worth spending time with.