Ali Karim is a Board Member of Bouchercon [The World Crime & Mystery Convention] and co-chaired programming for Bouchercon Raleigh, North Carolina in 2015. He is Assistant Editor of Shots eZine, British correspondent for The Rap Sheet and writes and reviews for many US magazines & Ezines.
When the release of this novel was announced, it became one that I anticipated with as much excitement as a dialysis patient waiting for a spare kidney. This can be a problem as I have experienced disappointment when excited about an upcoming novel due to expectation. This time there was no disappointment, instead a sense of awe as I read the exploits of Jake Epping a high school teacher in 2011 Maine, and his incredible journey. Thanks to Diner owner Al Templeton, dying of lung cancer he elects to ask Jake to enter his basement to complete the task he is now too ill to finish. The task is to use a secret ‘portal / time tunnel’ in the Diner’s basement to travel back to 1958 and prevent the murder of President John F Kennedy in Dallas in 1963.
In order for Jake to blend into the late 1950’s and early 1960’s he adopts the identity of George T Amberson, [and a wad of 1950’s cash] provided by the dying Al, between bouts of coughing blood into a sanitary towel. The rules of the time-tunnel are explained to Jake by Al, as the Diner owner had been using the portal many times, for ‘vacations’. No matter how much time one spent in the past, only two minutes elapse in the present reality, and that each journey re-set the portal back to the same date and time in 1958.
Jake’s first task as Amberson is to travel to the fictional town of Derry, still reeling from events that were outlined in King’s IT, thanks to Pennywise the clown. Jake is tracking down a man who savagely murdered his wife and family with a hammer, leaving one son seriously injured. That son would grow up to become Harry Dunning, the janitor with the limp at Jake’s school, a man who before retiring finally gets his high school diploma; in part thanks to Jake’s reaction to the essay he penned detailing that tragic night. The period detail of the 1950’s coupled with Jake’s requirement to ensure that he must be over 99% certain that it was Lee Harvey Oswald that did kill President Kennedy, make the journey as exciting as it is filled with nervous anxiety. Though King pins his drama firmly to the breast of Lee Harvey Oswald being the lone gunman, as opposed the Grassy Knoll advocates; I can see why he did this. As a literary device, the lone gunman theme keeps the narrative focused. If King explored the various conspiracy theories, then the novel would get lost in the gun fire. It should be pointed out that despite [a] time travel and [b] President Kennedy’s assassination being key drivers for the narrative, it’s the themes that are at the centre of this work, that truly count. The themes contained in ’11 / 22 / 63’ are numerous, such as Jake finding out that ‘life does [indeed] turn on a dime’, and that actions and inactions have consequences, especially in affairs of the heart. The novel explores the relationship between love and loss, as well as the idea we live in an absurd reality, one that allows a lone ‘nut’ to kill the most important man in the world, and that we must never take anything for granted as it can be taken away in the random sway that is reality.
Al and Jake use the term ‘watershed’ moment describing significant events in history – well, “11 / 22 / 63” is what we would term as a ‘watershed” novel; a novel so breathtaking in scope and execution that it sets a new standard in the ‘time-travel’ subgenre. Though I should clearly point out that the time-travel element, is really only a ‘motif’ because this magnificent novel is really about love, loss and the consequences of ones actions and inactions. It is a huge book in terms of size, weighing in over 900 pages, or over 30 hours in unabridged audio; though I must make clear that if you pardon the pun, time flies while you read it and wish it would never end, such is the appeal of the narrative and the questions it poses to the reader.
A mature work that actually makes you feel that the past is always alive, and all our actions and inactions ripple through time and forge ‘the present’. A masterpiece in a writing career that gets better and better thanks to King’s extraordinary imagination.
Read Ali's interview with Steven King's UK editor, Philippa Pride of Hodder Stoughton here.