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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With that, King ratchets up the consequences of changing the past. Jake ponders the butterfly effect and wonders constantly whether the small changes wrought by his presence are altering future events in unexpected and harmful ways.Skip to next paragraph
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He finds the past stubbornly resistant to going off-course, though the lax world of a half-century ago lends itself to creating false identities with minimal inconvenience. Driver’s licenses, for example, don’t include photos. Travelers can walk into an airport and hop on a plane, no questions asked. And, as Jake demonstrates, a gun can be legally and legitimately bought for $9.99 with no waiting period required.
Jake’s mission to save JFK depends on him answering a question that has vexed Oliver Stone and Kevin Costner, among many others. That is, did Oswald act alone or was it a conspiracy involving the Mob, the government, or others? Jake heads South from Maine, witnessing Jim Crow on his way to Florida before migrating west to New Orleans and then into the hostility of Dallas in the early 1960s.
King inserts plenty of verisimilitude into his tale, the result, no doubt, of many virtual and actual trips to Dallas and the Sixth Floor Museum. Most important, the Oswalds and Kennedys are living, breathing people rather than historical artifacts. For a time, Jake lives below the Oswalds in an apartment on West Neely Street (where Lee and Marina Oswald lived with their baby daughter) and tries to determine whether Oswald is the lone conspirator.
When he’s not chasing Oswald, Jake retreats to a small town outside Dallas and stumbles into what would be an idyllic job and romance sullied by just one unavoidable exception: He’s a time traveler from the 21st century trying to save the president’s life. Even if he wanted to enlist help, no one would believe the outrageous scenario of what history will record on Dallas’ day of infamy.
Somehow, the absurdity of the situation – and Jake’s self-awareness – makes the love story all the more heartbreaking. These threads eventually come together (King has never been a man to be hurried through a tale and that holds true here) in a breathless chase to reach the Texas School Book Depository on a November afternoon when JFK and Jackie are basking in the sun in an open-air car.
“The noise of the crowd rushed in again, thousands of people applauding and cheering and yelling their brains out,” Jake recalls. “I heard them and Lee did, too. He knew what it meant: now or never. He whirled back to the window and socked the rifle’s butt-plate against his shoulder.”
And with that, King’s muse dances through several twists in a finale that makes 11/22/63 a date well worth keeping.
Erik Spanberg regularly reviews books for the Monitor.