Monday, 3 December 2012

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Possibly the most annoying book title I've ever seen.  Even the correct date would be bad enough - but the 11th of Twentytember 1963?  You try stopping the assassination of John F Kennedy on a ludicrous date like that - see how far you get!

Luckily the rest of the book is great.  It's a simple enough premise - man goes back in time to try and save JFK - but the attention to detail makes it work.  It all starts with a cracking idea - how can a local diner in Maine make such cheap burgers?  Obviously, it's because the owner has a portal to an exact time and place in 1958 out back, so every week he goes and buys the same bunch of mince for a few dollars, takes it back to the present and cooks it up.  For years the customers have been eating the same meat over and over again!  I love it - banal and mindblowing.

Here are the rules - the changes you make in the past affect the present; you can stay as long as you want but when you come back through the portal you've only been gone two minutes; and every time you go back through the portal it resets everything.  You're very aware that every time the hero's doing something in the past, he can always go back and change it.  And if, for instance, he's saved someone's life on a previous visit, he has to go and do it again the next time.  Or he can take a short cut.  This all works really well, especially because of another rule the hero discovers - history doesn't want to be changed.

Clearly King's done a lot of research about Lee Harvey Oswald in this book, and it reminded me a lot of Normal Mailer's Oswald's Tale, which turns out to be one of the main sources.  But before we get to all that, there's a little something fun for the die-hard Steven King fan - a return to Derry, home of Pennywise the Spiderclown.  If anything the feeling of dread in that city is even more pronounced in this book than in It.  This section could easily feel forced, but it's really well handled and possibly my favourite bit.

And with all this going on, it's something of a surprise to discover that at its core, this book is a romance.  The relationship between the time traveller and a teacher he meets in the 60s is well portrayed, so you start caring about these people's lives and futures.  Which I suppose is the real secret to Steven King's success, but it works particularly well here.

And I'm not going to give away any spoilers, but the ending is also good - plausible and yet original.  Good to see King can still knock it out of the park when he wants to.


Ali said...

One of these days I'll read a Stephen King book.

Ed said...

Why would anyone with a portal to 1958 use it to buy bags of mince? There are any number of things you could go back and buy that would make you very rich in the present, removing the need to sell cheap burgers in, or even run, a diner in Maine.

Joe said...

Economy of scale! He's already got a diner so he'll be making a huge profit over time. Interested to know what you'd buy from the 50s which would be worth more now. Baseball cards or something? Which would also be a very Stephen King thing to do. Especially if it's a Sandy Kaufax card.

Ed said...

Baseball cards certainly. Anything that's collectible or exponentially more expensive now - unopened toys, comic books, jewelery, robot prototypes - you name it! Cars... Could you drive a car back through the portal?

Joe said...

The portal wouldn't be big enough for a car - especially a huge 50s one with fins etc. Plus, it would probably be possessed, leading inevitably to more problems.