Until last week, my experience with Stephen King was limited to my seeing a commercial for the TV movie version of IT when I was a little girl. For months, I couldn’t walk into a dark room without being haunted by visions of a creepy clown. Since then, I’ve avoided horror, both on the screen and on the page. If all it takes is a commercial spot to do me in, I don’t think I have any business immersing myself in a haunting novel.
Of course, I’ve grown a bit since the ’80s. And so has Stephen King. He’s gone from being a genre writer with a creepy cult following to becoming a respected author. (Well, a respected author with a creepy cult following.) His newest novel, 11/22/63, isn’t horror, and doesn’t have any clowns in it. Plus, it came out in paperback recently. So I figured I’d give it a shot.
Turns out, my timing was perfect. See, 11/22/63 is the story of an English teacher who time travels back to the ’50s and ’60s, and my reading just happened to coincide (“harmonize,” as the book would say) with the political conventions of the past two weeks. As I read about small town charm in King’s Texas, the Republicans looked back to Mayberry, presenting small town America (and small businesses) as our new shining City on the Hill. And as Jake, the main character in King’s novel, became more involved with the Kennedy administration and Lee Harvey Oswald, the speakers at the DNC channeled Kennedy, too, with their “ask not what your country can do for you” agenda.
King’s a master storyteller, and I certainly enjoyed the characters and the story, but his treatment of the time period was the real stand-out for me. His facts are incredibly solid, and his attention to detail is remarkable. He did a fantastic job portraying wholesome, comforting, small town charm without demonizing it as some writers have, but he also showed its dark side — not just in the atrocities that occurred during the fight for Civil Rights (although he shows some of those, too), but also in the hopelessness of the day to day lives of poor or disenfranchised Americans not lucky enough to live in those pockets of small town perfection. It’s an important reminder that, no matter which vision of America we subscribe to during this election, there’s another side that must be acknowledged.
I picked up this book partly because I’d heard great things about it, and partly because I was in the mood for a well told story as a weekend escape — and 11/22/63 certainly delivered. In almost 900 pages, I never felt lost, never felt like the details were superfluous, never lost the ability to care about the characters. King specifies just enough about the time travel aspect that we buy into it, but not so much that we’re journeying into major sci fi territory. The historical cameos play second fiddle to the book’s fictional characters, just as I think they should. All in all, it’s a pretty fantastic story … and a decent reminder of what the past we seem to want to repeat was really like.