“Life turns on a dime” says Jake Epping in Stephen King’s novel, 11/22/63. So do great stories. A wonderful scene occurs in the novel when, Jake, a Maine English teacher in 2011, who is George Amberson, a Texas English teacher in 1961, chaperones the Sadie Hawkins dance with the new Librarian, Sadie Dunhill. The dance takes the reader back in time thanks to King’s incredible ability to bring attention to the little details that make up the differences between our current decade and the one fifty years ago. After the DJ plays Danny and the Juniors’ “At the Hop”, he requests the presence of the two chaperones to dance to music that they listened to as teenagers (or so he thinks). At this point, the opening notes to Glen Miller’s “In the Mood” can be heard even though it’s only a book with words. George/Jake and Sadie then perform the “swing” of their lives and none of their lives (there’s about four or five between the two of them) will be the same again.
Dancing and “In the Mood” are recurring themes in this story, the first full length novel of King’s that I’ve read (I know, and I call myself a reader!). What surprised me most about the book was the hopefulness about life it expressed. I’ve been told that this book is a little different from much of King’s work. Since I don’t have anything to compare it to at the moment, I’ll simply say that the “King” of horror can be sentimental – and without being (too) sappy. Brutal murders and mutilations do occur frequently and play a major role in the plot. But as George/Jake points out, in expressing what one might call his “world view”:
It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shoots and echoes, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.
As the title and cover of the book imply, Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of John F. Kennedy plays a central role in the novel’s plot. It’s not surprising that Oswald is the historical figure who King focuses most of his narrative, making him a fairly well-developed character. I can’t write too much about the plot without giving away the many great twists and turns that readers deserve to discover and enjoy on their own. One more scene, though, warrants mentioning. The suspense that King builds as Jake/George ascends the stairs of the six floors in the Book Depository to confront an animal-like Oswald is nothing short of brilliant.
On a final note, the novel makes an intriguing case for the idea that gunning down people for their ideals only makes those ideals stronger and last longer. Perhaps the dark doesn’t win, after all.