I HAVE JUST FINISHED 11/22/63, Stephen King’s recent novel. Published in 2011, it is a modern fantasy whose ‘gimme’ is unexplained, magical time-travel. In fact, the concept of walking into a small room and finding a gateway into another world is as old as, well—Narnia itself! The title of the novel should give away the destination of the time-traveling protagonist: he travels back in time to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting President Kennedy.
But the magic steps in the aging restaurant that lead down from the present into the past only takes him to one place and one time in 1958. So, he has to live there and wait more than four years, developing a persona, a life, and a career.
I need to make something clear here: I am not a big fan of Mr. King’s. This is not the first King novel that I have read: I enjoyed The Shining. My initial response to reading that book was that it read like the first draft of a talented writer of first drafts.
That is, I was impressed with King’s raw ability to write, but not impressed with the what I perceived as a very distinct lack of polishing and editorial oversight.
Nicholson steals every scene
I also thought the book would make a good movie: The Shining is one of those rare instances where I thought the movie adaptation was better than the book. Of course, when you have a director like Stanley Kubrick and an actor like Jack Nicholson at the peak of their powers and working together, magic can happen. And it did with the movie version of The Shining.
Nicholson is at his scene-stealing best: the famous “Here’s Johnny!” scene is also notable for just how perversely insane he makes his character (John ‘Jack’ Torrance) appear. And Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance—and who appears determined to undermine her budding acting career through most of the movie—gives one of the best performances of a truly frightened human being ever captured on film!
I attempted to read several other King novels; I think I started Cujo and Christine but never finished them. I know I got midway through Tommyknockers—love the part when they first find a portion of the gigantic saucer sticking up out of the ground.
But midway is about it for me and Mr. King. He really knows how to write a premise that sucks the reader into the book with great early chapters. But, I always felt let down by the second half of his books.
A sucker for time-travel stories
This was my response to 11/22/63: great beginning, catching my attention immediately and holding it through 500 pages. I empathized with the protagonist Jake Epping and the uncertain situations in which he found himself. I liked his girlfriend and wanted them to make it! I also liked the two older friends that he made in the school where he was teaching (and remember, he was teaching in his own past).
Like the aforementioned King novels, the latter part of the book did not hold up as well, leading to a less than satisfying conclusion—at least to me.
Now, the reason why I took another go at a Stephen King novel is that I am a sucker for time-travel stories, and this is a time-travel story. It is a fantasy, granted, and one that takes place in contemporary reality with repeated flights back to a precise date in 1958.
But the method of travel is a magical doorway from one world to another, no different than the wardrobe that bridges Earth with Narnia. This is not a complaint: it could have been a mirror (as in Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass) or a closet (the previously mentioned The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis).
Hell’s Belles, it could have been a legendary psychedelic mushroom in the rain forests of Yucatan (as with Lewis Shiner’s Deserted Cities Of the Heart), and it would have worked for me. As I said, I am a sucker for time-travel stories.
The case against Oswald is not closed
The other attractive feature of 11/22/63 is that I am a bit of a Kennedy ‘assassination buff’—what those of us who reject the Warren Commission’s conspiracy-less (sic) theory used to be called until they came up with the pejorative ‘conspiracy theorist’—and can usually tell whether or not a writer has done his homework on this topic.
While reading King’s take on the November 22, 1963, I got the distinct impression that King’s primary reference for the assassination was Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, while Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale was the go-to book for his depiction of Lee Oswald as an insecure, violent sociopathic personality. Needless to say, I do not consider either of these books to be helpful in understanding the events of this day …
The narrative of the novel is told in such a manner that the question of who killed JFK on November 22, 1963, remains unanswered. King’s ‘solution’ was vague enough that, if you are one of the few left who believes that Oswald acted alone, you would be pleased with the outcome.
If, on the other hand, you are one of the majority of opinion-holders in the world that believes that there was more than one shooter, the outcome is vague enough to leave you guessing King’s assessment of that day.
Unfortunately, Mr. King included an afterword that should never have been allowed into the book. King acknowledges both Mailer and Posner’s work among his main sources of information, which is at least half hilarious, given the current status of Gerald Posner.
This caused me to reflect backward and read into the novel’s seeming vagueness a definite statement by King about that day of infamy. Oh well, as the Rolling Stones once said, “What a shame, nothing seems to be going right …”
A paranoid sociopath who teaches himself fluent Russian
Using Mailer, King’s almost completely derogatory portrayal of Oswald as a vain, self-absorbed, possibly stupid, and easily misled person. Which, of course, fails to account for how a 17-year old high school dropout who enlisted in the US Marines wrangled an assignment to a top-secret radar base in Japan that monitored the even more secret U2 airplanes that were illegally coasting high above the Russian territories. Spying on Soviet military and manufacturing operations.
And the story and the coincidences get weirder and more prolific: according to his fellow Marines, the only books he was ever seen reading were by Karl Marx, the Father of Modern Communism.
Now, many investigators write this off—a US Marine on assignment off the coast of the USSR at the height of the Cold War trotzkying, er, trotting around the base carrying ANY book would have called attention to himself, let alone the presumed bible of the enemy—which, of course, if Lee was more than a mere grunt, this may have been his exact intention.
Nor does King explain how this imbecilic (“What, me worry?”) jarhead was able to learn to read and speak damn near fluent Russian without a teacher while on that top-secret assignment in that isolated compound.
Why does King believe Mailer and Posner?
It is almost inconceivable that a high-school drop-out of below-normal intelligence learned Russian while on duty at that base. And he certainly didn’t learn it at home before enlisting! Once you accept that, then only one other conclusion is left you:
Leon Oswald learned to read and write damn near fluent Russian after enlisting but before shipping out to Japan.
While he was in the Marines.
Question: What type of Marine was pulled from the rank and file and taught Russian at the height of the Cold War?
Answer this question correctly and Mr. Oswald takes on a whole new persona and the term conspiracy theory doesn’t sound so, so … outré, yes?
So, why does King believe Mailer and Posner that Oswald acted alone??
FEATURED IMAGE: The Texas Book Depository looking down on Dealy Plaza in 1963.