Early in Stephen King's new novel about a man going back in time to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy, readers must suspend disbelief and buy into the concept of time travel. Some readers might have to suspend disbelief just to buy an 849-page book, but it's recommended in this case. King's latest epic is as fascinating as the premise sounds.
Jake Epping, a 35-year-old high school teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, learns from his friend Al Templeton, owner of Al's Fatburgers, that the burger joint's pantry is a time-travel portal. Step through it and be instantly transported to 11:58 a.m., Sept. 9, 1958.
Al had been using the portal to buy ground beef at 1958 prices before deciding a nobler use is to change history for the better. But Al has cancer. With his dying wish, he enlists the reluctant Jake to save JFK, thus the book's title, 11/22/63.
Yes, 1958 is five years before Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy. Part of the brilliance (and heft) of this compelling novel is that Jake has to live in the past for five years, eventually moving to the cozy town of Jodi, Texas, where he teaches high school and keeps tabs on Oswald. It's during those years that this historical fiction, so seamlessly blended with science fiction, transforms into an endearing love story when Jake falls for the pretty new school librarian, Sadie Dunhill.
While King is not the first to rewrite the Kennedy assassination via time travel, his storytelling is so persuasive and captivating that it makes originality seem overrated.
King makes the story all the more plausible by having fictional characters and real people in Dallas interact. And he accurately portrays retro details from the late '50s and early '60s. In a time when a gallon of gas costs 19 cents, Jake buys a '54 Ford Sunliner convertible, tunes to the Everly Brothers, and heads south toward Dallas, facing detours all the way.
But Jake's target never detours from Oswald.
In the story's rush to the climactic ending, Jake frantically limps against the clock toward the inevitable moment when Oswald squeezes the trigger from the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository.
Readers will be reminded of the suspenseful tension of King's horror tales. But 11/22/63 is no nightmare. It is not typical Stephen King. It is extraordinary Stephen King.