Guys, I am writing to you from space!
I mean, not actually. I’m actually writing to you from a plane, where apparently you can buy Wi-Fi access now (it seems “Internet isn’t safe on planes” only meant free Internet.) I’m on my way to Chicago, during which time I will hopefully be able to catch up on some book reviews that are long overdue. I’m a reading machine lately, and my writing machine (read: combination of brain, hands and laptop) is struggling to keep up.
It’s kind of appropriate to be writing this review from THE SKY (sorry, I’m still excited about it.) I fly very infrequently, and every time I do find myself on a plane I’m somewhat amazed at how jaded people are by the whole process. My fellow flyers are casually reading newspapers while a giant metal machine lifts off of the ground; they’re closing their little window shades and flipping through celebrity magazines instead of appreciating how crazy the earth looks from even 10,000 feet up. I’m not saying I expect everyone to still be drooling all over themselves a zillion years after the advent of commercial flying (I didn’t feel like looking it up) but a little reverence would be acceptable, no?
Stephen King’s 11/22/63, which follows the story of a man who travels back in time to try and prevent the JFK assassination, was — among many things — an apropos reminder of how quickly we acclimate to technological advances. Jake Epping, a divorced Maine English teacher in 2011, travels back through a time portal (it ends up being way less cheesy than it sounds) to 1958, where he has five years to try and prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting the president. Along the way, Jake also tries to prevent other crimes whose consequences have played out in his present-tense life, including a mass murder committed by the father of his school’s janitor forty years ago.
Although 11/22/63 is executed awesomely — it didn’t end up on the New York Times Best Books of 2011 for nothing — some of my biggest reactions weren’t to Jake’s complicated scheming, or the pitfalls he faces as an obdurate past tries to prevent itself from being altered. Rather, what struck me most was how quickly the country — the world, really — has changed in 50 years. From small things, like photo-less driver’s licenses, to much bigger things, like segregation, or cell phones.
While my first reaction in imagining a trek back to 1958 is negative — outside of the obvious electronic withdrawal, it wasn’t the best time for women — there are certainly some appealing elements of that America. People were friendlier and more trusting, food had fewer preservatives, and everyone seemed — according to Stephen King at least; I obviously wasn’t alive — to have a general perception of the American government as still existing for the greater good. By comparison, the America of 2011 feels cynical and overwrought, having cleaned out its smog and cigarette smoke only so we can better see the endless array of fast-food restaurants and Kmarts. I certainly don’t long to return to the late 50s (except maybe for the music), but King does a good job of highlighting both the good and the bad of suddenly finding oneself living there.
What’s that? What about the plot? Right. So Jake Epping travels back in time, but like I said, the past is a motherfucker, and Jake encounters almost a Final Destination-ish plethora of obstacles on each of his tasks. Adding a layer of unforeseen complexity, while substitute teaching in Texas (to pass time as he monitors Oswald’s doings) he falls in love, which makes him obscenely happy but incidentally draws Sadie (said love) into harm’s way as she comes to grips with this kind of mysterious dude who appeared out of nowhere and uses phrases no one else does and seems bizarrely unperturbed by the imminent threat of global nuclear war.
11/22/63 has a lot of classic Stephen King elements: time travel, alternate realities, malevolent but vague forces seemingly bent on blocking protagonists’ good deeds, but it was also clearly an outlet for him to explore history and politics, neither of which are necessarily King hallmarks (with the exception of political machinations in fictional post-apocalyptic worlds.) Having never spent much time on the JFK assassination personally, I found myself doing a lot of outside Googling, and in this way it was really cool that the main “plot” around which 11/22/63 is centered isn’t fictional at all. I watched Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech, and a 1990s-era interview with June Oswald (Lee’s daughter). I watched the assassination footage about 800 times, and looked at a ton of pictures of Lee Harvey Oswald. (He looked like a jerk.) The irony of being able to read, watch or look at any of these things immediately, with just a few keystrokes on an iPhone, was not lost on me.
It goes without saying (though I’m saying it) that I am an unabashed Stephen King fan, maybe more so now that I’m older and can appreciate some of his subtext (greater than “ooh scary monsters.”) So I’d be lying if I said I was surprised to have so thoroughly enjoyed 11/22/63 (even though I had to read it entirely at home because I bought it in hardcover like a sucker and it’s way too heavy to carry around.) But I do continue to be pleasantly surprised with King’s newer books (Under the Dome being the last one I read), which feel fresh and insightful without requiring King to reinvent his style. Sure, there’s a certain repetition in theme, but after you’ve written 50+ novels, that’s probably to be expected.
As my giant steel bird descends from an altitude of 30,000 feet to the waiting arms of Chicago’s giant steel bird hangar (O’Hare), let me close by saying this: The world is exponentially different than it was 50 years ago, and will be more different still 50 years from now. That doesn’t mean you need to hoard old newspapers, or develop an obsessive collection of vintage Pez dispensers. It just means we should maybe all appreciate where things are, and have been, and will be. Like maybe we should, just for one second, put down the US Weekly, pull up the shade, and take a look out the window of the airplane.
AUTHOR: Stephen King
PAGES: 849 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: Other Stephen King books
SORTA LIKE: Stephen King meets Robert Ludlum
FIRST LINE: “I have never been what you’d call a crying man.”
PS: The headline of this post refers to this amazing YouTube clip of Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, which my friends and I watched about 8.4 million times in college. Go to 2:37 if you’re impatient.