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Stephen King Zips Hero Back to ’58, Targets Oswald: Book Review

The cover jacket of
The cover jacket of "11/22/63," a novel by Stephen King. Source: Simon and Schuster via Bloomberg

Nov. 8 (Bloomberg) -- In his new novel, “11/22/63,” Stephen King goes back in time to save John F. Kennedy from Lee Harvey Oswald and shows how far he has come as America’s chief chronicler of the creepy.

Time-travel isn’t new and King doesn’t pretend it is. He credits Ray Bradbury and Jack Finney for their splendid fables of “what if” -- “A Sound of Thunder” and “Time and Again.” He says in a note that he first had the idea of “saving” Kennedy in 1972, but put it aside. A few years later, he wrote “The Dead Zone,” to which the new book must be compared.

“11/22/63” is “The Dead Zone” stood on its head. In the earlier work, a Maine high-school teacher awakens from a coma with second sight and has a vision that a popular politician will one day destroy the world. He sets out to kill him and save the future. In “11/22/63,” a Maine high-school teacher, Jake Epping, travels back to 1958 to stop an assassin and rescue the past.

King’s storytelling has improved in 32 years. Where “The Dead Zone” stumbled, with an unconvincing villain and pointless digressions, “11/22/63” circles smoothly from premise to conclusion like a vulture closing in on a carcass.

And Oswald is a perfect King villain. Desperate and unstable, bitter and paranoid, casually brutal, petty and self-pitying, he is one minor personal setback away from lashing out at everyone within reach. Such men are the stuff of history.

Behind the Coffee Shop

Epping’s journey to the past is a simple matter of walking into a coffee-shop supply room and through a time portal that always lands him on the same day in 1958. This leaves him with five years to wander the U.S. and right other wrongs: the slaying of a family, a child’s accidental crippling.

Why doesn’t Epping kill Oswald right away? In 1958, the would-be assassin was still in the Marines, stationed overseas. Plus, there’s the question of whether Oswald acted alone, a subject of novels before this -- James Ellroy’s lurid “American Tabloid” and Don DeLillo’s chilly “Libra.” For Epping, and King, it’s less a political or moral question than one of logistics: Is Oswald the only person who needs to be eliminated? Is changing a world-historic event that simple?

“The past does not want to be changed,” Epping discovers. “The past is obdurate.” Events persist, people and things echo across time like old melodies -- a friendly bookmaker, an enraged father, a facial scar, a wounded leg.

The five-year windup also allows King to indulge his appetite for immersive detail. He accounts for every brand name, every street sign, every moment until that fateful afternoon in Dealey Plaza and its bizarre aftermath. Epping falls in love, gets beat up, places huge bets on the World Series.

Tract-House Monster

But mostly, Epping, a well-meaning specter from the future, stalks Oswald, a malignant ghost-to-be, waiting for the proper moment to wrench history from the amber of time.

In the age of “Mad Men” and “Pan Am” it’s refreshing to see a take on the era of sexism, segregation and cigarettes that’s not decked out in stylish suits, cocktail shakers and jumbo jets. King specializes in quotidian horror: the dull job, the brutal spouse, the monster in the tract home behind the Montgomery Ward warehouse.

“Scaring people is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it,” he writes.

“11/22/63” is published by Scribner (849 pages, $35). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Andrew Dunn is an editor at Bloomberg news. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of the review: Andrew Dunn in New York at adunn8@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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