Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Book 15: 11/22/63

I've been reading Stephen King since I was about 12, although there are still a few pieces of his I haven't read (mostly the novellas/collections; I've just never been much of a short story person).  For some reason, I was mixed about whether I wanted to read this, and I think it has a lot to do with my place in history.  The idea behind the story is that Jake's friend Al has discovered a gateway back to 1958, and the past resets itself with every trip (meaning, if you accidentally do something you shouldn't like start telling people you're from the future, if you go back to the past after returning to the present, it's like it never happened because the gateway always leads back the exact same moment).  Al's plan was to go back to 1958, wait until 1963, prevent the JFK assassination and with it, any bad things that had happened afterwards such as increased troop presence in Vietnam, Bobby Kennedy's and Martin Luther King Jr's assassinations etc.  When Al's health fails him, he convinces Jake, a 35 year old English teacher living in Maine, to take up his mission.  Obviously the premise sounds intriguing, but I think the reason I wasn't more interested in the novel when it came out to begin with is that I was born in 1984.  The JFK assassination is of interest to me as a history major, but I have never been sold on the idea that Kennedy was this totally amazing president, if only because he died very early before he could really leave more of his legacy (additionally, aren't we generally more forgiving of the dead, especially the assassinated?).  In fact, given the chance to change history I don't think I would even go back to stop Hitler, if only because being a bit of a pessimist, I can't help but wonder that if the Holocaust and World War II hadn't happened then, maybe something much worse would have happened later without that tragedy to make people more closely evaluate situations and consequences (not that we've really learned that much).  Also, not to sound harsh, but sometimes a martyr is necessary - would certain people have been able to pass certain laws if they had lived, or were the laws only passed due to their death, and in memory of them?
Once Jake returns to the past, he has five years to decide what he will do - Al was only 95% certain that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone gunman, so Jake and Al were both afraid to move too fast.  Eliminating Oswald may have simply led to another gunman being hired rather than preventing the assassination.  After preventing a crime in Derry (a town King readers of course recognize - Jake actually meets two of the characters from It) that has a more personal meaning to him, Jake gets ready for the long wait.  He ends up settling in a small town in Texas, near Dallas, after making a stop in Florida.  While in Jodi, he ends up working as an English teacher, and directs the student plays.  Simultaneously, he returns to Dalls and Fort Worth at times to shadow Oswald's movements, and confirm his guilt as the gunman.
Jake naturally develops personal relationships with several people in Jodi, including a romantic entanglement with Sadie, the school's librarian who has some baggage of her own.  And while that was sweet and all, Sadie kind of irritated me.  It probably started with the fact that Jake described her as this perfect, tall, gorgeous blonde that is endearingly klutzy.  Really?  How often has this trope showed up in romantic comedies now?  How many articles have I read about this very thing where the only flaw women are allowed to have is being a bit of a klutz?  And that's who ends up being the love interest?  A klutz that occasionally speaks of herself in the third person (which may have annoyed me more than the klutz thing).  Additionally, I had read complaints that King may have glorified either the past or small town life a bit much.  There are definitely parts that seem just a bit idyllic but I think King may have been afraid of this happening himself so occasionally Jake comments about the lack of racial integration, or people's attitudes towards women and sex.  So it's a mixed bag, but Jake definitely seems to prefer the so-called simplicity of the early '60s.
The beginning of the novel kept me interested as King was explaining how it all worked but once Jake was in the past, I was kind of ready for the five years to pass a bit more quickly.  The thing is I'm not sure what it was - obviously, King couldn't just jump forward five years, and the details did make for a nice narrative but at some point, Jake's character became a bit grating.  His spying on Oswald wasn't really that interesting which seems odd that I wanted less on Oswald and the assassination in a novel that was technically about preventing JFK's assassination.  Of course, there was a bit much of Jodi as well - overall King probably could have cut at least a hundred pages, instead of showing example after example of how the past harmonizes and/or protects itself.  The other thing that is interesting is that Jake really doesn't think about what it is he plans to do that much - Al laid out the plan for him, Jake hesitated and then went with it.  He doesn't seem to wonder at any point in the five years if preventing the assassination would really be that good of a thing to do - yes, this is somewhat addressed with the idea that history resets itself so as Al points out in the beginning, if things turn out badly, Jake can take it all back, but at no point does he really think about how the world might be different - he simply takes Al's assessment that things would have been better without the assassination at face value.  He spends a fair amount of brooding on the Oswalds and his actual plan but not much analysis on the why of it (of course, I've already explained my views on changing the past in the above paragraph).
While the novel could have been condensed somewhere, it was still an enjoyable, if long-winded, read (I feel like I had more fun reading Under the Dome).  One thing about this novel that was very good is that King actually knew how to end it instead of facing his usual problem of just kind of tacking on an ending that made little sense.  This ending definitely made sense, and was rather fitting for the novel (while I of course didn't guess the specifics of the ending, I had an idea of the overall ending from very early in the novel), so it was nice to see King actually close out a book in a way that left more questions and didn't go along with the book at all.

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