"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Time Well Spent with King's '11/22/63'

11/22/6311/22/63 by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the simple reasons fledgling writers are told to “write what you know” is practicality. If you aren’t an experienced writer with ample time, connections and money, a research-intensive project might drown you before you even start the rough draft. This, as Stephen King indicates in his Afterword, is the reason he didn’t write 11/22/63 when he first conceived it back in 1972.

Oddly enough, though conventional horror marks the major beats of this novel, and historical research ornaments every page, 11/22/63 is neither a horror novel nor a grand tour of JFK assassination lore. Rather, it is a deeply introspective and often sentimental journey told first-person by a protagonist who is neither John F. Kennedy nor Lee Harvey Oswald. The main character is none other than a high school English teacher from Maine. So the novel is also very much an example of King writing what he knows.

While I found this book quite satisfying, I do have one major issue. For a story built around time-travel, 11/22/63 is at times maddeningly linear. Granted, it needs to be. This is a character piece as much as it is a thriller. So King uses the bulk of the novel to believably dramatize how a workaday English teacher transforms into a shadowy enigma capable of identifying with Oswald. This slow-boil delivery, fitted out with copious diversions into scenic detail, often causes the pace to drag. I sometimes felt like I was trapped on a dear friend’s couch as he explained every single vacation photo in a thick album.

Still, the novel hits far more than it misses. I think the most compelling use of history is King’s treatment of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Here there is a riveting interplay between the historical ordeal that indeed took place and the fictional characters who find themselves propelled deeper into personal crisis as a result. On the wholly fictional end of things, King produces some wonderfully haunting moments by threading this novel’s mythology into the one he crafted for his acclaimed novel It.

Lastly, there is one paragraph in 11/22/63 that mesmerized me. The moment after I read it, I declared it my favorite paragraph of King’s writing. I won’t quote the whole thing, but it is an awesome mingling of shimmering prose, cutting social commentary, and lyrical musing. When you read 11/22/63, look for the paragraph that begins as follows:

“For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. ...”

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