One of the Ten Best Books of The New York Times Book Review
Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize
Now a miniseries from Hulu starring James Franco
ON NOVEMBER 22, 1963, THREE SHOTS RANG OUT IN DALLAS, PRESIDENT KENNEDY DIED, AND THE WORLD CHANGED. WHAT IF YOU COULD CHANGE IT BACK?
In this brilliantly conceived tour de force, Stephen King—who has absorbed the social, political, and popular culture of his generation more imaginatively and thoroughly than any other writer—takes readers on an incredible journey into the past and the possibility of altering it.
It begins with Jake Epping, a thirty-five-year-old English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching GED classes. He asks his students to write about an event that changed their lives, and one essay blows him away—a gruesome, harrowing story about the night more than fifty years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a sledgehammer. Reading the essay is a watershed moment for Jake, his life—like Harry’s, like America’s in 1963—turning on a dime. Not much later his friend Al, who owns the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to the past, a particular day in 1958. And Al enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession—to prevent the Kennedy assassination.
So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson, in a different world of Ike and JFK and Elvis, of big American cars and sock hops and cigarette smoke everywhere. From the dank little city of Derry, Maine (where there’s Dunning business to conduct), to the warmhearted small town of Jodie, Texas, where Jake falls dangerously in love, every turn is leading eventually, of course, to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and to Dallas, where the past becomes heart-stoppingly suspenseful, and where history might not be history anymore. Time-travel has never been so believable. Or so terrifying.
High school English teacher Jake Epping has his work cut out for him in King's entertaining SF romantic thriller. Al Templeton, the proprietor of Al's Diner in Lisbon Falls, Maine, has discovered a temporal "rabbit hole" in the diner's storage room that leads to a point in the past 11:58 a.m. September 9, 1958, to be precise. Each time you go through the rabbit hole, according to Al, only two minutes have elapsed when you return to 2011, no matter how long your stay; furthermore, history resets itself each time you return to that morning 53 years ago. Al persuades Jake to take a brief, exploratory trip through the rabbit hole into 1958 Lisbon Falls. After Jake's return, a suddenly older and sick-looking Al confesses that he spent several years in this bygone world, in an effort to prevent President Kennedy's assassination, but because he contracted lung cancer, he was unable to fulfill his history-changing mission. "You can go back, and you can stop" the assassination, he tells Jake. Jake, with only an alcoholic ex-wife by way of family, is inclined to honor his dying friend's request to save JFK, but he also has a personal reason to venture into the past. A night school student of his, school janitor Harry Dunning, recently turned in an autobiographical essay describing how on Halloween night 1958 Dunning's father took a hammer to Dunning's mother and other family members with, in some cases, fatal results. An attempt to head off this smaller tragedy provides a test case for Jake, to see if he can alter the past for the better.Hundreds of pages later, once over the initial hurdles, Jake is working under a pseudonym as a high school teacher in Jodie, Tex., an idyllic community north of Dallas. Knowing who's going to win sporting events like the World Series comes in handy when he's short of funds, though this ability to foretell the future turns out to have a downside. Indeed, the past, as Jake discovers to his peril, has an uncanny, sometimes violent way of resisting change, of putting obstacles in the way of anyone who dares fiddle with it. The author of Carrie knows well how to spice the action with horrific shivers.In Jodie, Jake meets a fellow teacher, Sadie Dunhill, who's estranged from her husband, a religious fanatic with serious sexual hangups. Jake and Sadie fall in love, but their relationship has its difficulties, not least because Jake is reluctant to tell Sadie his real identity or reason for being in Texas. Clearly inspired by Jack Finney's classic Time and Again, King smoothly blends their romance into the main story line, setting up the bittersweet ending that's as apt as it is surprising. He also does a fine job evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of the late '50s and early '60s. The root beer even tastes better back then.By early 1963, Jake is zeroing in on a certain former U.S. Marine who defected to the Soviet Union and has recently returned to the U.S. with his Russian wife. Relying on Al's judgment, Jake is only about 75% sure that Lee Harvey Oswald alone shot JFK, so he spends much time trying to ascertain whether Oswald is part of a conspiracy. Jake admits to not having researched the Kennedy assassination while still in 2011 Maine. If he had, he might've given up after concluding that it would be hopeless to try to stop, say, the Mafia, or the CIA, or Vice President Johnson from killing Kennedy. On the other hand, the plot would've been a lot less interesting if Jake, convinced on entering the past that Oswald was the sole gunman, felt compelled to eliminate Oswald long before that pathetic loser settled into his sniper's nest in the Texas School Book Depository, toward which Jake winds up racing on the morning of November 22, 1963.In an afterword, King puts the probability that Oswald acted alone at "ninety-eight percent, maybe even ninety-nine." "It is very, very difficult for a reasonable person to believe otherwise," he adds. King cites several major books he consulted, but omits what I consider the definitive tome on the subject, Vincent Bugliosi's Edgar-winning Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Norton, 2007). Bugliosi, who makes an overwhelming case in my view that the Warren Commission essentially got it right, covers the same ground as a book King does mention, Gerald Posner's Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (Random, 2003), then goes on to destroy the arguments of the conspiracy theorists, with wit and ridicule as weapons. Of course, there will always be intelligent and otherwise reasonable people, like PW's anonymous reviewer of Reclaiming History and King's wife, novelist Tabitha King (a life-long "contrarian," King tells us), who side with the host of cranks emotionally invested in believing Oswald was the patsy he claimed. Those folks may have a problem with this suspenseful time-travel epic, but the rest of us will happily follow well-meaning, good-hearted Jake Epping, the anti-Oswald if you will, on his quixotic quest. Reviewed by Peter Cannon, PW's Mystery/Thriller reviews editor.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Good fall read
This was a good book to take breaks from college studying. Although a tiny confusing sometimes, keeps me interested.
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