No matter where you stand on the "false divide," as a Guardian critic recently put it, "between readability and excellence," between popular fiction and literary fiction, you have to admit that Stephen King can tell a scary story. Many of King's more than 49 books (and the films adapted from them) have become part of our cultural zeitgeist. Which is why it pains me (truly) to have to write this next sentence. King's "11/22/63" is a boring read.
OK, the book's not all dull. The premise is an intriguing one, a "what if" adventure tale of speculative historical fiction. What if a lonely English teacher from Maine, Jake Epping, altered one of American history's "watershed moments" via a time tunnel under a diner, killing Lee Harvey Oswald before he assassinates President Kennedy? Would eliminating "one wretched waif" in the past result in saving "millions of lives" in the future?
The owner of the diner recruits Jake for this dangerous mission. Armed with a historical crib sheet, Jake learns the rules of becoming "an intrepid visitor to the Land of Ago." First, the tunnel always opens to September 1958, and, second, even if Jake is gone for years, when he returns, only two minutes have passed. More important, with every return trip, time resets. Moving back and forth is not possible without undoing what has already been done.
History becomes Jake's foe and it's a formidable one. From the beginning of his quest, Jake notices "harmonic signals," patterns of actions repeating and revising as time tries to synchronize with Jake's interference. The past, Jake realizes, "is obdurate. It doesn't want to change."
Jake is a likable hero, as unassuming in the past as he is in the present, so the first obstacle history puts in his path is Sadie, a librarian with whom he falls in love. For a time, Jake lives two different lives -- one in Dallas where he spies on Oswald, and one in a small Texas town where he teaches high school and lives with Sadie. This part of the book was suspenseful and poignant.
For five years, Jake tracks Oswald's movements, and it's this part that made me yawn. King has thoroughly researched this period of U.S. history, but it bogs down his story. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I spent the '60s and most of the '70s living in Scotland, never experiencing the Kennedys' powerful mystique firsthand, but the pages and pages of Oswald's domestic dramas and the chapters and chapters of the comings and goings of others involved in shaping his twisted psyche were just not that interesting.
Early in the novel, Jake says being recruited for this quest was like "being tapped by Coleridge's Ancient Mariner." Jonathan Demme has optioned "11/22/63" for his next film, with King as executive producer. All would be right with my time if Demme helps King get the albatross off this story, freeing it from the burden of too much history.
Carole E. Barrowman teaches English at Alverno College in Milwaukee and blogs at www.carolebarrowman.com.