Monday, October 17, 2011


Back to the Past to Fix the Future: plus perhaps some Other Things we don't know about Tyson Blue

Welcome back; it's been awhile. But Stephen King's new novel, 11/22/63, resonates with me on so many levels that it seemed like the perfect place to jump back into the blogosphere.

First ,there is the basic concept itself: the idea of going back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination is an idea with particular appeal to me, because I have a connection with those events. After World War II, my mother left the Marine Corps and went to work for the OSS as a translator. She was given documents in Russian, spelled using Cyrillic letters. She had a sheet with the Cyrillic characters and their Roman alphabetic equivalents, either letters or phonetic sounds. She would then transfer the message from Cyrillic to Roman, still in Russian, and pass it on to Russian-speaking operatives who would translate them. She was one of a vast network of low-level spies whom the CIA -- OSS' successor -- declassified a few years back.

After that, she went to work in DC at Garfinkel's department store. She became friends with Ethel Greer, one of the women she worked with. Ms. Greer's husband, Bill Greer, was an Irish-born "driver agent" on the Presidential detail of the Secret Service. His job was to drive the President wherever he needed to go. He drove every president from Truman to Johnson, and he was driving JFK on 11/22/63. I vividly remember his sharing his recollections of that day with my family and me during vacation trips to our home in New Hampshire.

Another reason the book resonates so strongly with me is the location of the portal into 1958. When I was growing up, my father worked for a company called J.P. Stevens, which at the time was the second-largest textile company in the world. They made everything from parachutes for the space program to army blankets, and most everything in between. My father was production manager for the northern division of the company, which included two plants in Massachusetts, two in New Hampshire, and in 1956, they acquired the Worumbo Woolen and Worsted plant in Lisbon Falls, Maine.

During the early '60's, when I had days off from school, I would sometimes go with my father when he went to Worumbo, and would entertain myself by wandering the plant or heading up the hill to a convenience store near the plant's gates to browse for comics and magazines. I still have some things I picked up there in my collection. I have often wondered whether Stephen King, who was a high-school student at the time, might have been in there along with me.

Worumbo was closed down by the company in 1964, and during that summer, before he started college, King worked there.His experiences there eventually turned into the short story, "Graveyard Shift", published in Night Shift. The plant eventually burned down in the '80's -- a fate that has befallen a surprising number of Stevens plants -- but in 11/22/63, the portal that leads to September, 1958, drops travelers into the courtyard of the Worumbo plant.

The book's narrator, Jake Epping, upon first arriving in Lisbon Falls, goes to the Kennebec Fruit, a variety store near the Worumbo plant. In modern times, the Kennebec Fruit doubles as a museum devoted to the uniquely New England soft drink Moxie, which I have loved since the '50's. You may also be interested to know that Frank Anicetti, proprietor of the museum in the novel, is a real person, who can be seen in video on the Moxie Festival website.

As he begins his mission to save JFK with a dry run at saving the janitor at the school where he teaches from being catastrophically injured by his drunken father, Jake travels -- in 1958 -- to one of my favorite destinations in King's fictional Maine, Derry. And in the course of his travels, he meets two of my favorite King characters, Richie Tozier and Beverly Marsh, both last seen in IT. This particular aspect makes the book special to me because, although I realize I am in the minority -- I once got a strange look from Frank Darabont when I said this -- IT is one of my favorite King novels. And here's why.

It is not the monster aspect of the book that makes it a favorite, although that is fun. What I like about it is that it perfectly captures what it was like to grow up in New England in the late 1950's, the kinds of activities kids engaged in, the games they played, the way cliques of "losers" formed, and so on. We even played in an area much like the Barrens, with subterranean pumping stations dotted around the woods like Morlock wells from the George Pal version of "The Time Machine". So getting to see Richie and Beverly again, so soon after the events of the 50's section of the novel, was a real treat for me.

These are some of the reasons why 11/22/63 resonates so powerfully with me. It's interesting how few of them have anything to do with the story itself, but more with how it pings off of events in my own life, which are pure coincidence. The Kennedy assassination is a pivotal moment for anyone of my and King's generation; it is, as someone observed, our 9/11. The use of Worumbo as a location is obviously important personally to King, and to me as well, but that is just a coincidence.

Nevertheless, all of this makes the novel more immediate, more important, to me as an individual reader, over and above the events of the novel itself. which we will deal with next.

11/22/63 is a novel which explores a theme King has employed before in some of his finest novels, something I call the "Hamlet Dilemma". I call it that because it is summed up most succinctly in Hamlet's classic quote: "Time's out of joint; o cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right!" In essence, the pattern of the universe has been disrupted in some fundamental way -- in Hamlet's case, his uncle has murdered his father and married his mother -- and only one person can act to restore things to an even keel, often with tragic consequences for the actor.

King has used this theme to best effect in his classic novel, The Dead Zone, where Johnny Smith, because of his unique abilities, knows that Greg Stillson (the original Teabagger?) is going to become president and start a nuclear war. But in order to expose him and prevent this from happening, he loses his life and is branded as a mad killer.

In Pet Sematary, Louis Creed knows that dead is not always forever thanks to the ancient Micmac burial ground, and because he misperceives the way in which time is out of joint, to wit, thinking that it is out of joint by his son Gage's having been killed by a truck, when the truth is that it is out of joint by things being brought back to life in the burial ground, he dooms his entire family by trying to bring his dead son back to life.

Here, Jake Epping and his mentor, Al Templeton, believe that the Kennedy assassination is an event which has put time out of joint, and as a result embark on this epic quest to prevent it and set things right. The results turn out to be somewhat different than they, and readers, might expect. Part of this comes from their misunderstanding of the way time travel works. Templeton tells Jake that every time he goes into the past is the first time, ie., everything that has happened on the last trip is completely reset. Actually, the truth is more like quantum theory, as explained in Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's The Grand Design, or in my foreword to Andrew Rausch's new book from Bear Manor Books, The Wit and Wisdom of Stephen King. I'm suggesting you check one of these sources so as not to be accused of spoiling things.
Speaking of spoilers, those of you who pretend to actually be upset by such things -- and go right ahead and read them anyway! -- you will be pleased to know that King did not give away major plot details of this novel in an interview in a Marvel preview comic dealing with the Dark Tower comics.

But, to get to the novel itself, at long last...We all know already that the book deals with Jake Epping's journeys into the past in order prevent the Kennedy assassination and thus to create what should be a better future by allowing Camelot to continue. But what this really is, more than anything else, is a love story. While waiting for Lee Harvey Oswald to get to Texas and set his plan in motion, Jake, known in the past as George Amberson, gets a job teaching at a high school in the small town of Jodie, near the less desirable Dallas-Fort Worth area.

There, he meets Sadie Clayton, a young woman, separated from her sexually twisted and volatile husband. The two begin a friendship which ripens over time into love. This is derailed when Jake slips up and sings a few raunchy lines from a Rolling Stones song which, along with other anachronistic slanguage he uses, convinces Sadie that there is something strange about him, something he is hiding.This leads to a breakup which in turn leads to a major change in their relationship a little farther on.

That reconciliation takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and this is one of the most suspenseful parts of the book, and highlights the meticulous research King did for this novel, and all that work pays off particularly during this segment.

Suffice to say that the two reconcile, and from there events in the story begin to move at a faster and faster pace, leading to a final, fateful confrontation on what the UK edition of the novel calls "The Day That Changed the World".Does Jake save JFK? Of course he does! Do you really think King would string us along through an 800-plus page novel and give us no payoff at the end? Does the world change? You bet it does! But I won't tell you more than that; the incredibly beautiful, near-perfect ending of this book is a treasure you should uncover for yourself.

Let's talk technique for a bit here. For this to work, King has to create a living, breathing world for his characters to inhabit. Like myself, King grew up in the 1950's. He slathers on the period detail generously, recreating that world, warts and all, with a keen eye for nostalgic detail that does not impede the forward movement of the story. This is done by using everything from period television and radio shows, songs, fashions, language, the pervasiveness of smoking, even in public places and by doctors.

When Jake goes to pick up condoms so he and Sadie can consummate their relationship, he goes to Killeen, a town tens of miles from Jodie, so no one they know will find ouot, and the pharmacist warns him not to do anything against the law, because as almost no one remembers anymore in a time when such things can be bought at the grocery store and are even advertiosed on television, in the early '60's, it was illegal to use condoms to prevent pregnancy, although they could be used to prevent disease (sounds kinda like Teabagger-land, doesn't it?) .

Several themes drift throughout the novel, giving it a supporting framework and logic that helps move it along. The most important is the notion that the past does not want to be changed. When Templeton or Jake try to change events, things crop up to slow them down or stop them, to prevent the events from being altered. The more drastically their actions would change the past, the more and more dangerous the obstacles become. For example, when Templeton tries to prevent a girl from being crippled in a hunting accident, he encounters car troubles and a fallen tree. When Jake tries to keep his friend the janitor from being hurt by his father, and the rest of his family from being killed, he is first stricken violently ill and then captured and nearly killed by another citizen of Derry who has his own agenda.

Given the enormity of his ultimate attempt in Dallas, the obstacles become truly staggering and deadly, which helps propel the story to its stunning climax.

Another theme which resounds through the novel is the concept of "Echoes" in time; names, in particular, pop up again and again throughout Jake's journey; fathers and husbands attacking family members crops up again and again; characters with similar names and in similar jobs or relationships, appear over and over; knives figure prominently at various times as well.

Also, dancing is life. Dancing appears as a link between characters across time over and over in the novel. Jake and his ex-wife Chrissy competed in a dance contest doing the Hellzapoppin', a variation on the Lindy Hop, which Jake later helps teach to Beverly and Ritchie in Derry; and in Jodie, Jake does the same dance with Sadie when they are chaperoning a dance (If you're unfamiliar, there are some great video samples on YouTube). It is always a symbol of the sheer joy of life when at its best, and is a thread which binds this time-hopping narrative together and helps to define it in ways King has seldom used in his fiction, altough it has appeared here and there, most memorably in Carrie and later in Bag of Bones, one of King's most literarily ambitious books.

King also did an impressive amount of research regarding the historical events in the novel, even going so far as to consult historians Richard and Doris Kearns Goodwin, best known for Team of Rivals, the book about Lincoln's cabinet used by President Obama to assemble his own cabinet. They have also written about JFK extensively, and helped project how the future might have changed as a result of the prevention of the assassination.

Ultimately, I would rank 11/22/63 just behind The Green Mile as my all-time favorite. And the ending, which I won't reveal, is easily King's best since "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling" in Hearts in Atlantis. You won't need a hankie or a tissue, but if you're not dead your eyes will sting a little.

For those interested in such things, there are two limited editions of 11/22/63. The Hodder & Stoughton edition comes in a cloth slipcase, with a facsimile signature by King and a region-free DVD featuring a short film, written and directed by King, dealing with the novel and the historical events behind it. This film is also included in the Scribner enhanced e-book, but can only be seen on an iPhone or iPad or similar device.

The Scribner limited is signed by King but not numbered, and features a different cover from the trade edition, as well as chapter heading photographs not available in the trade edition.

Simon and Schuster Audio has also produced the by-now de rigeur unabridged audiobook, although Hodder & Stoughton chose not to do one this time around, according to my sources. The US audio is read by actor Craig Wasson, who was requested by King after the author heard his tour de force reading of James Ellroy's Blood's A Rover a few years back. Wasson a veteran actor who has appeared in "Ghost Story" and Brian DePalma's "Body Double" among many other roles, also read the audio version of "Blockade Billy". Rover in particular showcased his amazing range of character voices in its best light, and that talent shines through here as well.

In a rare touch, when he is reading the segment where Epping is trying to save the Dunning family, his voice breaks and begins to quaver and become choked with tears, as a person might when describing a traumatic event. Wasson manages to make the daunting task of listening to a single voice reading a massive work across thirty hours plus on 30 CDs pass quickly and smoothly, and without the listener's attention wavering. This is an outstanding King audiobook. I'd love to hear him tackle The Stand sometime. Hell, at this point I'd like to hear anyone tackle The Stand. I'd even do it myself!

Earlier today (as this is being written, on November 7), King appeared at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, where he read selections from 11/22/63 and took part in an on-stage discussion of the novel, his life and his career with novelist Thomas Perotta, author, most recently, of The Leftovers. For those who could not attend, the event was streamed live, and may be available online afterward. We can't say for sure, as this is being written shortly after the event concluded.

SPECIAL UPDATE: 11:54 a.m., 11/8/11. I have just been informed by Simon and Schuster that, due to problems with their system, the online sale for the limited edition of 11/22/63 has been postponed to Thursday, 11/10/11 at 10:30 a.m.

There are a couple of King short stories which have appeared recently, and should be easily obtained.

The British literary magazine Granta has recently published its Horror issue (#117, available from Amazon and other online retailers), featuring "The Dune", a new King short story. The story is set in Florida, near King's winter residence, and deals with Harvey Beecher, a retired state court judge who is telling the attorney drafting his will about his near-lifelong obsession with a strip of sandy beach on a small island just off the Gulf Coast at Siesta Key. Legend has it that the island is home to a buried treasure placed there by the legendary pirate Blackbeard; however, Judge Beecher's interest in the place is far stranger, and more frightening.

Also new from Houghton Mifflin is The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, a collection 14 tales by as many authors, each basing a story on an illustration by Chris Van Allsburg, author-illustrator of such classics as Jumanji and The Polar Express. King's contribution is "The House on Maple Street", which appeared in his 1993 collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes. This story of children who (a) discover something very strange about their house, and (b) use this knowledge to exact a rather delicious revenge on their stepfather, Daddy Lew. Reader reviews of the book on Amazon's website unanimously put down this story, going so far as to say that it did not belong in a collection of stories aimed at young readers. I would respectfully submit that they're full of shit. I thought this was fun when I first read it; I think that now.

Other contributors to the collection include Tabitha King, Jules Feiffer, and M.T. Anderson, and the book also features an introduction by Lemony Snicket.

For those of you who might be new to this column, aside from King-related news, we also features reviews of books by other writers on other subjects, under the heading of "Other Things", but this time we're going to forego that. Next time, there will hopefully some "other things" news, as well as a look at the upcoming television version of Bag of Bones featuring Pierce Brosnan, and more.