In every life, a little fall must reign.
One slip, one missed opportunity, one hesitation or wrong turn can haunt you forever, casting an intractable shadow over the rest of your days. The words "if only" are never far from anyone's thoughts.
But what if you could go back and make it right?
That universal yearning for a golden do-over is what gives Stephen King's new novel — weighing in at an eyeball-bruising and sleep-slaughtering 849 pages — a broad appeal, luring even those who don't much care for ghosts, zombies, monsters, apocalypses or supernatural shenanigans.
"11/22/63" (Scribner), scheduled to be published Tuesday, aims not so much to frighten or creep you out, but to make you think. It has its share of suspenseful moments, and there is the odd skull-shattering blow with a hammer or face-opening slash with a knife, but on the whole, this is no "Shining" (1977) or "Pet Sematary" (1983), to name just two of the 50-plus works by King that have scared readers.
This is a novel that hooks into the passionate human desire for a second chance — not just for the individual, but for the world as a whole. "11/22/63" was born in the questions that loom in invisible ink in the margins of every history book: What if Hitler had never come to power? What if the Titanic had enough lifeboats?
Of all the alternative narratives that run parallel to the real history of the United States, none is more poignant and powerful than the one that goes like this: Had Kennedy lived, he would have withdrawn American troops from Vietnam before that conflict became the long and bloody stalemate that it did, and then — led by Kennedy's intelligence and vision — the nation would have embarked upon a golden age of social justice and great achievement.
"11/22/63" is a novel about that hope — the hope that the country might have gone in an entirely different direction had Kennedy lived. It is a hope secretly harbored even by those who don't agree with Kennedy's politics. Because at bottom, it's not about politics. It's not even about Kennedy. It's about the uniquely American quality of believing in tomorrow, no matter what. Kennedy coaxed that hope out in the open, but even without him, it still would live in every American.
King's genius is to take an overarching idea like that one — What if a guy went back in time and tried to thwart the Kennedy assassination? — and place it on a scale small enough to seem plausible. So "11/22/63" is about history and destiny and time travel, but it's also about a guy: Epping, a high school teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine. And it's about a gal: Sadie Dunhill, a feisty librarian in a small Texas town.
A guy and a gal. They fall in love. What could be simpler?
Except that it becomes pretty complicated when you realize that Sadie lives in the late 1950s and Jake from 2011 — a snag that makes Romeo and Juliet's little issue look like a minor speed bump. Jake is in the Lone Star State on a mission: to find, follow and stop Oswald from killing Kennedy. How can Jake — who calls himself George once he hurtles back through the decades courtesy of a mysterious staircase in the back of a diner — ever explain to Sadie that he comes from an era of personal computers, microwaves and phones that don't even have cords anymore?
That's the intimate, human part of the story. The major drama — trying to get in the way of a murderer who is about to change the history of the most powerful nation on earth — is a different kind of challenge for Jake. Because as he quickly discovers, the past doesn't want to be changed. The past "senses change-agents, and it has teeth."
Many writers have undertaken time-travel stories, but what's marvelous and enthralling about "11/22/63" is that you really feel that Jake's in a new place — that is, in an old place, the past. There is a beautiful, unsettling strangeness about everything, from the clothes to the music to the cars — yet it is also familiar, because we know it. We know it from having lived through it, or from the pictures and stories of people older than we are.
Jake's first trip is not to 1963, but to the time of the childhood of someone he knows as an adult; he wants to head off a tragic event in his friend's early life. It's a kind of dry run for the Oswald intervention. With every step, though, Jake realizes how stubborn the past can be, how headstrong and even malicious. Messing with Mother Nature is notoriously ill-advised — but Father Time, it turns out, can be just as ruthless to those who cross him.
A King trait that has always impressed me is his habit of putting his fictional people in a world of books and readers. He's a literary name-dropper for the best of reasons: to suggest that writers matter, that they furnish the world just as surely as do TV shows and slang expressions. The writers mentioned in "11/22/63" include Paul Bowles, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, John Irving and others — some household names, some definitely not.
Many readers may find "11/22/63" too long, too bloated, and it's true that after the novel's midpoint, things begin to drag. Jake's slow-motion game of cat and mouse with Oswald and his family gets tedious. King's tremendous popularity and success probably means that no editor on earth has the power to say, "Trim it back a bit, Steve."
But on the other hand, if you want a nice, tidy story that minds its manners and stays inside the lines, you need to look elsewhere. King is an all-night storyteller, and his tales are as sprawling and messy and irresistible as an Old English sheepdog.
"In my life as a teacher," Jake muses, "I used to hammer away at the idea of simplicity. In both fiction and nonfiction, there's only one question and one answer: What happened? the reader asks. This is what happened, the writer responds … Keep it simple. It's the only sure way home."
How often does a writer set forth his theory of craft and then demonstrate it, too, all in the same novel? "11/22/63" starts with a grand and mammoth premise — a time-traveling avenger is bent on rescuing humanity — but in the end, it's all pretty simple: Love saves the world, time and time again.
Twitter @litkellCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun