Time travel novels always bring up fascinating questions. Can one person change history? Can history be changed at all? Should you meddle if you have the opportunity? Are there multiple timelines out there? Stephen King’s 11/22/63 asks all of these questions. For some inexplicable reason, a hole in time has appeared in the pantry of a diner in Lisbon Falls, Maine. The owner of that diner, Al, has been taking trips back to 1958 to get cheap food to sell (at such low prices that the locals make jokes about catburgers). Eventually, Al decides that he’s going to use the portal to do something more worthwhile than buy supplies. Since the portal always takes him to September of 1958, he decides that he’s going to stay until 1963 and stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John Kennedy.
But when Al develops terminal cancer, he drafts his friend Jake into taking on the mission in his stead. This book is huge, but a lot of it spent–not on Oswald–but actually on Jake’s life in the past. Once he’s proved to himself that changes in the past can actually alter the future (Jake’s present), he believes Al in that it might be possible to save Kennedy. Al figures that Kennedy, if he had lived, would have kept the Vietnam War from becoming a war in the first place. Al thinks that November 22, 1963 is a turning point. By saving Kennedy, the world would be a better place and they would be saving millions of lives. Jake also signs on to save one of his adult education students from a horrific attack on the student’s family by their father.
Once Jake stops the father from murdering his family and giving the survivor a traumatic brain injury, he heads for Texas. Al did a lot of the research and Jake is able to keep fairly close tabs on Oswald as the assassin returns from Russia, wanders around Texas and Louisiana, and plots to murder the president. Now, if this had been the main plot, I think this would have been a better book. Instead, we get Jake’s story as he makes a life in Jodie, Texas and falls in love with a divorcee with a psycho ex-husband. In fairness, this would have been an interesting story, too. But when you stack it up against the Oswald plot, it falls short. It reads as though Jake is wasting his time. With all of the research Al did and all of the forensic investigations after the fact, there’s little doubt that Oswald did it. So it’s curious that Jake gives him the benefit of the doubt for so long. Jake does a little snooping around the people in Oswald’s life to see if anyone put him up to it, perhaps because of the long standing conspiracies about the Grassy Knoll and a possible second shooter.
But then the narrative heads back to Jodie and Jake saves his girlfriend from the aforementioned psycho, and Jake spends a few pages working out how to bring Sadie to the future to help fix the scar she received from her ex-husband. Finally, Jake manages to focus on what he actually set out to do. After missing an early opportunity to take out Oswald, it all comes down to stopping him on November 22. This part of the book is just as tense as one could wish and comes off fantastically. The rest of the book, except for the early parts where Jake prevents local tragedies in Maine, is a slog in comparison. After becoming a national hero, Jake returns to his own time to discover that things actually got much, much worse.
And thus, the questions. Even though this book could use some serious editing, it does make you think about not only whether it’s a good idea to meddle if you have the opportunity. But that leads to the other question, is what happened what was meant to happen? Of course, whatever timeline you’re in is the “real” one to you. If nothing else, 11/22/63 shows that our world could always be worse. It’s not possible for Jake to keep fixing things, because he’d have to keep reliving the 1960s over and over again until he died as he dealt with the consequences of his changes. There would always be the risk of making things worse. Since he’s mucking around in the cold war, worse includes nuclear annihilation.
While this isn’t the best example of alternate history (I wasn’t kidding about the editing thing), this is still a very interesting read.