What is it about time-travel fiction? I’m a sucker for it. In other genres I whine about stereotyped characters and clichéd language and too many damn vampires. But time-travel stories can really be quite bad before I lose patience with them. Case in point: this novel.
In some ways, all time-travel fiction has the same premise: Person X is somehow transported through time, either intentionally or unintentionally. If the time travel is intentional, then clearly the protagonist has a plan of some sort: a person to intercept, a plan to thwart, a curiosity to satisfy, etc. At that point, the story becomes a typical quest narrative, with obstacles in the hero’s path and adversaries and what-have-you. If the time travel is unintentional, then at least the first half of the novel is the story of a stranger in a strange land: confused, disoriented, possibly friendless, possibly in physical danger, struggling to understand his predicament, ignorant of local customs and mores. In Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Claire Randall travels back in time unintentionally at the beginning of Outlander, returns (as Claire Fraser) to 1945 at the end of Dragonfly in Amber, and then later returns to the eighteenth century in the beginning of Voyager – so Gabaldon is able to take advantage of both types of plot over the course of her long, intricate novels.
Plot in the usual sense is almost a moot point in a time travel novel. In some of Gabaldon’s poorer novels – and in the novel by Stephen King that I’m reviewing today – long stretches of text cover Claire in Outlander or Jake Epping in 11/22/63 doing nothing but ordinary activities. In other novels, readers might react negatively to an entire chapter in which the protagonist just eats a sandwich, picks his nose, and tries to figure out how to work the toilet. Readers of time-travel novels are expected to have no such concerns, because TIME-TRAVEL sandwiches and TIME-TRAVEL nose-picking and TIME-TRAVEL toilets are assumed to be inherently fascinating. And, honestly, as sarcastic as that last sentence sounds, most of the time it works. Time travel is interesting. It appeals to me on any number of levels: as a person who loves history, as a person who loves thinking about all the cause-and-effect relationships between human beings and the larger world, as a person who on some level fears strangeness and is terrified by the prospect of being unmoored and cut off from my most basic beliefs and customs – and, yes, also as a person who sometimes likes to pretend to understand quantum physics. All of the above are reasons that I often read time-travel fiction and usually enjoy these novels, even when they’re flawed.
Stephen King’s protagonist, Jake Epping, is a high school English teacher in rural Maine in 2010. His school year is winding down, and he spends the first chapter of the novel grading papers (not even time-travel papers! Regular 2010 papers – which I know from experience are hardly the stuff of high drama). He is in the later stages of a divorce from Christy, his alcoholic soon-to-be ex-wife who has become so devoted to her new AA friends and pithy AA slogans that she has no room left in her life for a husband who is not a recovering alcoholic. He stops on the way home from school at a burger joint that everyone in town shuns. Its prices are so low that most of the townspeople are suspicious of how the proprietor – Al Templeton – manages to stay in business. Jake is Al’s only loyal customer.
Long story short, Al Templeton’s business is successful in spite of its almost nonexistent clientele because Al does his shopping in 1958. The pantry of his restaurant contains a portal to the past, and Al has been using it for years, stocking up on ground beef and potatoes on double-coupon day each week. Since Al is also known to place the occasional bet on a sporting event in 1958, he never suffers from a lack of funds.
The mechanics of time travel in this novel work like this: when a person walks into Al’s pantry, shortly before he collides with the back wall, he starts to feel that he is at the top of a flight of stairs. If he keeps going, soon he starts to feel a warm September breeze instead of the stuffy air of the diner’s pantry. If he follows the invisible staircase all the way to its end, he finds himself in an empty lot where weeds push their way up through the remnants of cracked and crumbled concrete. No matter when a person follows this staircase, he will always arrive in 1958 at exactly the same time on the same September Saturday. One there, a time traveler can do anything that anyone else can do: get on a bus or train, rent a house, buy a car, go shopping, get a job, you name it. At whatever point that he wants to return to 2010, he needs to find the spot in the middle of the vacant lot, feel around for the bottom stair, and then climb the stairs back into Al’s pantry and 2010. Time travelers always return to 2010 exactly two minutes later than they left, no matter how long they stayed in the past. Another wrinkle in the system is the fact that any changes that the time traveler makes to the past are reset the next time he descends the stairs. 1958 is sort of like a video game: a trip down the stairs hits the reset button.
Al introduces Jake to all of this craziness and then tells Jake that he has chosen him for a special mission. Jake notes, by the way, that Al looks awful: he seems to have aged a decade or more since the last time Jake saw him (which makes sense, since one can spends entire decades in the past and still return to 2010 just two minutes later than one left), and he has late-stage lung cancer. He was diagnosed by a 1960’s doctor but chose to return to 2010 instead of being treated. He wants Jake to take over the mission that he set up for himself in the past: to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
I’m going to take it for granted that you know the details of Kennedy’s murder: the grassy knoll, the book depository, Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, brains splattered on Mrs. Kennedy’s pink suit, etc. If you’re shaky on the details, just travel back in time about a week, when the fiftieth anniversary of his death was the news of the day. CNN would be happy to enlighten you – especially in the middle of the night. Al Templeton believes that if Kennedy had not been shot, then Lyndon Johnson would never have been president and, therefore (according to his sketchy logic) the U.S. would never have committed to the war in Vietnam. Al sees his mission as saving not only Kennedy’s life but also the lives of all the Americans who were killed in that war. Jake seems to accept Al’s logic without a fight, and while he finds the whole scenario a little bizarre, he accepts the challenge and sets out with a sheaf of Al’s notes from the years he spent trailing Lee Harvey Oswald through Louisiana and Texas before his cancer diagnosis forced him to cancel his mission and persuade Jake to complete the task for him.
This book is 850 pages long, and everything I’ve told you above is revealed as exposition in the first thirty or forty pages. The bulk of the novel is made up of Jake’s trips to the past (he makes several). He conducts some experiments to find out whether he is actually capable of making concrete changes to the past, and he finds that he can, but any changes he makes will be cancelled if at any time he decides to travel back down the staircase again. In other words, on his last trip into the past, he has to leave everything the way he wants it. As you might imagine, this is not an easy thing to do.
Let’s keep in mind that Jake (whose name in the past is George Amberson, by the way) has to spend five years in the past before the Kennedy assassination is due to take place. Al encourages Jake to do as much research as he possibly can to find out whether Oswald was truly a patsy of some larger authority, as he claimed, or whether he was the “lone gunman” described in the Warren Commission report. Al himself feels “95 percent sure” that Oswald acted alone. Al wants Jake to kill Oswald well in advance of November of 1963 and then hurry back to Maine and climb the steps back into 2010 without changing anything else about the past.
Five years is a lot of time to kill. This novel tracks Jake through the hardscrabble town of Derry, Maine, where he saves the same family from the same drunken husband and father twice (long story) to Sarasota, Florida – where he takes a job substitute-teaching at the local high school – to Dallas and Fort Worth, where he rents an apartment, buys a gun, bets on a few more football games and horse races, and familiarizes himself with all the apartments that Oswald would live in once he arrived in the area, all the acquaintances Oswald would make, and all the jobs he would hold. Then, horrified by the racism, prostitution, violence, and general ickiness of Dallas, Jake drives out of the city and rents a house in the small town of Jodie, Texas. Once again he substitute-teaches. He is embraced by the school and by the community, hired on as a full-time teacher for the following year. He falls in love. All along, he surreptitiously returns to Dallas, where he eavesdrops on the Oswalds and monitors their comings and goings. He also becomes more and more disturbed by the way the past “harmonizes,” a term that he uses to describe what seem to be coincidences: meeting a person in 1961 Dallas who has exactly the same name as someone he met in Maine in 1958, seeing similar cars parked in key places, and that sort of thing.
Of course I’m not going to tell you what happens next. I’m not going to tell you if Jake prevents the assassination of Kennedy or not. I’m not going to tell you if he returns to 2010 or not. I’m not going to tell you if he is able to spend the rest of his life happily married to Sadie, the school librarian with whom he falls in love. While I didn’t hate this book – and actually returned to it fairly readily each day – it doesn’t have much going for it besides suspense and the general fascination of time travel, so I’m not going to strip it of 50% of its appeal by telling you how it ends. I’m not sure if I recommend it or not. It’s charming at times. Jake is an appealing first-person narrator, although he’s a little bit Everyman-ish for me. It occurs to me as I type this sentence that in 850 pages of first-person narration, Jake tells us almost nothing about his family and his life before he began teaching in Maine. That’s weird, right? Jake himself is an enigma whose motivations are never really clarified for me – although it’s true that after he falls in love with Sadie, his love for her becomes his motivation, and I suppose that is plausible enough. At times this book feels almost shockingly derivative, particularly of the trio of Back to the Future movies. While I know that the line between “shockingly derivative” and “written with an awareness of context” is a thin one, I was still bothered to see characters and moments of dialogue from those movies reproduced almost exactly – largely because Jake Epping was born in the same year I was – 1976 – and was therefore in the third grade, like I was, when Back to the Future was released and therefore probably saw it four times on the big screen, just like I did. Maybe it’s just the use of a 1950’s high school as a setting, with its dances and soda fountains, that felt too close to those silly movies to be taken seriously.
I was prepared to like this book quite a lot. I found myself snorting here and there, but mostly my interest in the book was sustained by its suspense and by the relationship with Jake and Sadie, which is plausible and strong and sweet. And while I won’t tell you what happens at the end, I will say this: this book supports the idea that when human beings act for individual reasons – to defend themselves and their families, to support friends who have been hurt, to protect the innocent, etc. – stories end well, and when people act for sweeping geopolitical reasons – like murdering a symbol of wealth and privilege, like advancing the interests of Soviet Communism, like preventing a murder designed to advance said interests – stories end badly. The novel’s flaws aside, this message feels like a valid one and helps me to like the book more than I might have otherwise. On a scale of one to ten, I give this novel five and a quarter.