Stephen King whisks readers back to 1963 in a piece of time-traveling historical fiction that asks: What if JFK had survived?
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His election follows an era devoid of Civil Rights triumphs. In King’s alternate take, LBJ’s mastery of legislative power remains untapped in the office of the vice president.
“The Republicans and Dixiecrats filibustered for a hundred and ten days; one actually died on the floor and became a right-wing hero,” he writes. “When Kennedy finally gave up, he made an off-the-cuff remark that would haunt him until he died in 1983: ‘White America has filled its house with kindling; now it will burn.’ ”
Such stomach-churning fun-house mirror episodes loom among many unintended consequences in 11/22/63, a piece of time-traveling historical fiction that makes the what-if game intensely personal and terrifyingly broad all at once.
It begins with the owner of a small-town diner in Maine named Al Templeton, who is dying of cancer. Locals have long wondered about Al’s Diner because of its Fatburgers, priced to move at $1.19.
Unknown to all but Al, the pantry of the diner just happens to be a portal into the past. 1958, to be specific. Rather than serving catburgers, as many in town have conjectured, the proprietor has been stepping into the past and buying ground beef for 54 cents a pound in the sock-hop era and bringing it back into 2011 for a healthy profit margin.
Cheap burgers are well and good, but the rabbit-hole inspires more than just business schemes. Each time Al Templeton returns to 1958, no matter how long he stays, just two minutes have elapsed in the 21st century when he returns. All of which can get a man’s mind to thinking.
The thinking Al does turns to history. Rewriting one of the saddest episodes in American history becomes an obsession for Al as he ponders what it would take to kill Oswald before Oswald can kill President Kennedy.
Near death, Al enlists Jake Epping, a 35-year-old high-school English teacher with a penchant for burgers, by initiating him into the otherworldly pantry and the plot to change American history.
This, of course, provides the foundation for the classic King tale: an ordinary man engulfed in the most extraordinary of circumstances.
King, a 64-year-old Baby Boomer, has a Mad Men-style ball satirizing the past as he sends a thoughtful but average man hurtling 53 years into the past. Before the harsh retaliation of mucking with the universe hits with full force, Jake Epping emerges enthralled and appalled during his initial sojourns into the Eisenhower era.