11.22.63

11.22.63
Stephen King
Reviewed by Keith B Walters
Hodder
Tue, 08/11/2011
9781444727296
£19.99

Since the early days of King's horror and supernatural tales, the master storyteller has often ventured outside of the genre - and 11.22.63 could be his best foray yet.

It still surprises people to discover that such great movies as The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me are based on his stories.  Now, despite a slight dabble with time in the past with his Benjamin Button-like Golden Years series, we are now treated to something that, at first, feels a little like King's version of American TV show Quantum Leap writ large - very large.
 
11.22.63 treads similar territory to the show, in which Sam Beckett would, each week, travel to another place and time and become another person in order to right a wrong or change history for the better. King uses his central character, teacher Jake Epping, to a similar degree, with Jake being told a secret by his dying friend, Al, that there is a time portal in the back of his diner.
 
Al has used the portal himself several times, and it always places in him the same moment - 11.58am on 9th September 1958. He tells Jake that, once back in time, he can stay there as long as he wants and whenever he comes back he will only have been gone for two minutes.
 
But, as is always the problem with time travel, there is the 'butterfly effect' - that one change, no matter how insignificant it might appear, might cause catastrophic ripples elsewhere, and throughout the book Jake has to keep on his guard to prevent causing anything that might make things worse than they would otherwise turn out to be. It's almost impossible not to have a Back to the Future image in the mind when Jake finds himself back in the late 1950s, and the similar cultural jolts, such as the price of things and the clothes worn and music played are all great indicators throughout.
 
Taking records of gambling dead certs with him to enable him to win on the races to keep him in old money is a nice touch - the slipping up and arriving in 1958 with a Nokia mobile phone and modern coins is not, however, such a good move on his part. But it's the central plot that drives the story through - with Jake using the portal for a longer trip, and having to deal with the fact that each trip causes a 'full reset' to anything he's already influenced - his chosen mission being to prevent the assassination of John F Kennedy on the 22 November 1963. It's the closest major event that he feels he can influence - 9/11 being too far in the 'future' and the likelihood he wouldn't be around that long to prevent it, and the potential for 11.22.63 to change history and possibly prevent the Vietnam war is too good to not take the chance.
 
Taking on the persona of George Amberson, an aspiring novelist, Jake blends into the 1958 society and begins to find his way towards his goal, finding love and danger in equal doses along the route. It makes for very interesting reading when a central character is out of time with the rest of the cast when describing what is about to take place in Cuba with the missile crisis, or takes a seat on a bus where blacks have to stand, despite the fact no one would ever believe him that by 2011 there's a black president in the White House.
 
11.22.63 has everything we come to want and expect from Stephen King: superb storytelling, characters we quite simply fall in love with and a tale that, despite its length, is perfect in every way.  The spattering of references to his other books is something I've come to enjoy over the years and it's no exception here - from the mentions of Shawshank Prison, a lovely red Plymouth Fury, a child killer in Derry who dresses as a clown, and many others. We even get some wordplay along the lines of RED RUM to toy with, and surely the population of the town of Jodie being 1280 has to be a nod to Jim Thompson's novel Pop1280.
 
Finishing off with a great afterword by King in which he describes in detail the thoughts behind the story, the fact that it was one he'd attempted to tell back in 1972, and a nod to his son Joe HIll for the better ending he suggested, 11.22.63 is truly an epic event novel about a massive historical event. 
 
To coin the opening line and one that crops up throughout the novel, "I have never been what you'd call a crying man" - but closing this book, I came pretty damn close.

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