What if you could go back? I think we all ask ourselves this question. Probably why time travel is such an interesting idea. I love time travel, be it movies (Primer anybody?) or in this case, books. When an author of Stephen King’s caliber decides to tackle the subject, I was quite confident it would be a good read. King did not let us readers down here. 11/22/1963 is the date John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, so the plot should be pretty obvious. What King does so well, and what makes the story so interesting, is that this is not just a story about time traveling in an attempt to save Kennedy. It’s not that easy. The mechanics of going to the past are unique. It becomes a tale about humanity, cause and effect, love, evil, and how the universe itself works. It’s most certainly a tall order, hence the book being over 800 pages long. King makes every one of them count.
The main character is one Jake Epping. Epping lives in 2011, small town in Maine (what, Maine in a Stephen King book, I know!), and he works as an English teacher in the local high school. He has an ex-wife who he still thinks about, papers to grade, and a cat who loves him. He’s not remarkable at all, basically. Until a restaurant owner who he’s kind of friends with named Al invites him to the shop after hours. Shows him a back room that leads to a staircase that leads to the past. September 9th, 1958, at 11:58 AM, to be specific. King sets up some pretty easy ground rules that set the story apart from normal time travel. That’s the ONLY time the portal, or wormhole, or whatever you want to call it, will take you back too. Jake’s initial foray to 1958 lasts only twenty minutes, but when he comes back he’s been gone two. No matter how long he stays in the past, when he gets back, only two minutes have elapsed in the present. The real catch is that as Al explains Jake his plan to somehow stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing Kennedy, Jake and us as readers both come to realize at about the same time that Jake would have to live in the past for five plus years to get to that point. There is no going the day before, not saving the President, then cycling back and trying again. Five years!
Two stories basically emerge. The story of how Jake Epping, a man from 2011, finds a way to live, without seeming insane, in 1958. No cell phones, sure. Wear appropriate clothes, of course. But it’s the even finer details that I would never think of that really stand out. Jake saying “dude” and getting strange looks. The word wasn’t invented yet! How does he get money? How does he get a PAST? All valid questions for a traveler to the past, and ones that King answers with his usual directness and style. The second story is how George Amberson (Jake’s alias) lives in 1958. This is the more human side. Five years is a long time. Jake makes friends…and enemies. He forms relationships, and through those changes the lives of many people around him. How is he affecting the future? It’s a question he struggles with, it hangs over the entire novel. What I enjoyed so much about the book is that for much of the time I could forget I was reading a time travel story. A novel set in late 50’s early 60’s America has bountiful material to explore, even with no science fiction element. I never truly forgot, but there are definite moments of being engrossed in the story only to have a “wow!” moment as the 2011 side of things presents itself again in some manner.
Just because this is a historical drama does not mean King doesn’t flex is macabre muscle. Jake’s adventures take turns for the extremely violent and disturbing more than once. Part of that comes from the workings of the universe story…namely, as Al puts it to Jake at the start of the whole thing; the past doesn’t want to be changed, it’ll fight you the whole way. The disturbing and truly weird events that do occur are used so sparingly that they have a ton of impact. For as much as people accuse King of being sick and twisted, I don’t think that’s entirely true. He doesn’t write whole books of insanity and death. He just writes those things so masterfully that they are disturbingly realistic and thus leave a lasting impression.
I don’t want to talk much more about the book’s plot, as I hate to give anything away. The story is unpredictable at almost every step, but looking back most everything feels logical and earned. Stephen King fans will be delighted. Anyone with even some knowledge of the time period will also really appreciate the details, it’s clear the amount of research that went in to this book had to have been monumental. How does one man balance a new life, missing his old one, time travel, and trying to stop an assassination? It’s well worth all 800 freaking pages of King’s book to find out.