I once counted myself a Stephen King fan—not a major one, though I thought “The Shining,” “The Stand” and “Dolores Claiborne” were excellent reads. But over the years I began to lose patience as his novels grew longer. My last attempt was “Duma Key,” which I tossed aside after the first hundred pages. Yet when the New York Times included “11/22/63” on its Notable Books list last December, I went “hmmmmm.” I’ve always loved time travel fiction, and was intrigued that King had written a novel in that genre. Although it took me another ten months, I finally picked it up, gobbling the last quarter of the book as quickly as I did my Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a spellbinder.
“11/22/63” is not without flaw. Its premise, a travel back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination, is, ironically, the least interesting part of the novel. Lee Harvey Oswald, his Russian wife, his overbearing mother and the people around him pale in comparison to the fictional characters who populate time traveller Jake Epping’s world during his journey from 1958 through 1963. Most memorably these include the folks our hero meets in Jodie, Texas, where he settles as a high school teacher two years before the assassination and falls in love with the unforgettable Sadie Dunhill, the school librarian.
There are some problems in the narrative. I would have liked a more detailed (and earlier) explanation of the mysterious Yellow Card Man who seemingly ushers Jake into and out of the past. I don’t buy the altered universe King spins as the aftermath of changed history, though I have to say it’s eerie to see how accurately he captures the rhythm of JFK’s speech in a telephone conversation between Jake and the President. Ultimately what makes “11/22/63” such a great read is the detailed journey King takes us on through the landscape of the late 50’s to the early 60’s. The author has created a remarkable world that should have been the subject of its own novel, instead of taking a back seat to the Kennedy assassination. The end of the story is the most poignant conclusion I’ve read in years.
King long ago revealed his admiration for Jack Finney, a writer whom he again praises in the “Afterword” of “11/22/63.” Best known as the author of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Finney is the generally acknowledged master of the time travel story (And before anyone sends me a nasty email, yes, I’ve read Richard Matheson’s “Bid Time Return” aka “Somewhere in Time.” A great book, but Finney did more with the genre). His best short fiction—“Second Chance,” “Where the Cluetts Are” and “The Love Letter”—is unsurpassed and unforgettable. Finney’s preoccupation with escaping into the past culminated in “Time and Again,” his 1971 “illustrated novel” about Simon Morley’s visit to 1880’s New York. The book is a gem. In addition to the excellent mystery that serves as its core, the novel features a host of wonderful photographs from that era, along with Si’s drawings—he’s a commercial artist—vintage advertisements and other ephemera.
I became a Finney fan in high school after reading several collections of his short stories. When “Time and Again” appeared, I grabbed it from my college library and read it through every class I had until I finished it. After many years it’s again being developed as a film, but this is one book I had always hoped would never reach the screen. Its magic lies in those lovely black and white photographs of old New York, the wonderful details of life in that era that Finney so lovingly shares and Si’s “think it and you’ll be there” method of time transport. Occasionally you come across something that simply can not be improved upon, and “Time and Again” is a perfect example.
So if you need a quick vacation (albeit to the 1880’s), just settle in with Jack Finney. The journey should not be missed.