Monday, November 14, 2011

At the Bottom It's Always a Woman: "11/22/63" Reviewed, Part 1

The broker offered a dark smile.  "On Greenville Avenue you can never tell what's gonna happen.  Man blew his own head off just a block and a half from here a few years ago."
"Yessir, outside a bar called the Desert Rose.  Over a woman, accourse.  Don’t that figure?”
“I guess,” I said.  “Although sometimes it’s politics.”
“Nah, nah, at the bottom it’s always a woman, son.”
-- 11/22/63, Chapter 21

Here's the first thing you need to know about this review: unless you have already read 11/22/63, you shouldn't read any further than this sentence.  The reason for that is simple: I want to write a bit about some of the things that I think make the novel work so well, and I can't do that without being free to talk about the story in its entirety.

You don't want to be spoiled to that degree.  Even if you think you do, you don't: this novel deserves to be read with as little foreknowledge of its contents as is possible.  I knew too much about it going in (although some of what I thought I knew ended up being false info), and while that didn't hamper my enjoyment of the novel in the slightest, I still wish I had had a completely unburdened first read.

So, if you're planning on reading the novel -- and if you aren't, why on Earth are you reading this review? -- do yourself a favor: go read it, and then come back here.

In order to provide a bit of a transition before I get into the review, I offer this:

And here is the point at which I reveal something major about the novel 11/22/63: it isn't really about the Kennedy assassination ... at least not in as large a sense as the marketing of the novel indicates.  Lest this seem like an odd thing for me to say, allow me to pose a question: how much of It is really about a shape-shifting monster?  How much of The Shining is really about ghosts?  How much of Christine is really about a haunted car?

If you answered those questions with some variant of "not all that much," then you're on the right path.  It, of course, is actually about the undeniable fact of childhood's ultimate end, even within our own memories; The Shining is about the gravitational pull of madness, and Christine is about the dissolution of a teenage friendship.  (Those are broad-stroke summations, of course; all three novels are about much more than that, but those make for good starting points.)

This, of course, is nothing new in the works of Stephen King.  Most of his novels have a hook of some kind -- I hesitate to call them MacGuffins, though they aren't entirely dissimilar -- upon which King hangs his larger thematic concerns; that's one of the elements of his work to which so many critics and reviewers are, apparently, blinded.

11/22/63 is, however, receiving largely positive reviews; some of them have downright rapturous, and a few of them have even noticed that King is working with some large concerns which don't really have an awful lot to do with Lee Harvey Oswald.  Some of these positive reviewers seem surprised by what they've found: "Mr. King's books have a far stronger real-world component than they used to," writes Janet Maslin in the New York Times, "even when he deals in premises rooted in science fiction."

I am happy that Maslin enjoyed the novel, and that she recognizes its strengths, but I have to wonder in what sense Carrie (which is all about the desperation of being a picked-upon unpopular teenager) or Pet Sematary (which deals with the grief following a child's death) or Cujo (which is a tale of the ramifications of an unsatisfying marriage), to take three examples, have notably weaker real-world components than 11/22/63.

From my perspective, obviously, they don't.  To be frank, Maslin doesn't know what she's talking about in that sentence, but she needn't feel too bad about it: she's hardly alone.  King's "real-world" relevance has often been overlooked, but it's absolutely essential to an understanding of why he has built and maintained as large an audience as he has. What keeps them -- us, I should say -- coming back again and again is the bond of identification he creates with his readers.  The means by which he goes about accomplishing that identification: his characters.

Again, this is nothing new.  I remember reading some critical analysis of King's work twenty or so years ago -- it may have been in Douglas E. Winter's The Art of Darkness -- which pointed that element of King's work out to me, and I was floored.  I was an incredibly unsophisticated high-school-age reader back then, and it came as a genuine revelation to me to find out that it was the people, rather than the monsters, which were the true engine in the car that is King's career.

I could play the old point-at-the-critics-and-holler-"J'accuse!" game for pages and pages, and I'd have a lot of fun doing it ... but there'd be little point in it.  I did think it was worthwhile, though, to point out that even now, when the good reviews are rolling in regularly, King is still being mistaken by the critical community.  It's a function of the marketing, and King himself perpetuates the sham to some degree, perhaps under the assumption that once his audience is reading the novel they'll see it for what it really is.  It's an assumption that has paid off brilliantly for nearly forty years, so I can't say that I blame him.

So, you might be asking, if 11/22/63 isn't really about the Kennedy assassination, then what, pray tell, IS it about?

The simplest way to put it is to say that it's a love story.  There's more to it than that, of course, but -- again -- it makes for a good starting point.  "Love," here, is defined not merely in the romantic sense, but in the larger sense of the word: a fundamental caring for the circumstances of others, and the desire to better those circumstances.  Virtually every action Jake Epping (King's protagonist in 11/22/63) takes is motivated by that fundamental caring; it is truly the novel's primary concern.

Within that framework, Oswald's assassination of Kennedy is merely a component, one which has echoes of Jake's own actions: Oswald is a harried mama's boy who goes about his madness partially to escape his mother and partially out of an attempt to protect the leftist garden spot of Cuba from the forces that seem to be aimed at destroying it.  Oswald's relationship with his mother is a failed love; it spills over into his relationship with his wife, Marina, whom he'd like to love, but can't seem to stop smacking around long enough to actually do so.  Policitcally, Oswald is an extreme leftist, but as King depicts him, he is motivated by a hatred of racism, and by a love for the Communist paradise that Cuba seems to be.  No rationale is provided as to why Oswald decides to kill Kennedy, but it is hinted that is is due to Kennedy's threatening stance toward Cuba.  Oswald, clearly, is mad, but behind his madness is love for the people of Cuba.  Is this fundamentally different from Jake's love for the bettered version of America he hopes to bring about by stopping Oswald?  I don't think it is.  I think Jake is a vastly more sympathetic character, and a saner one; but I don't know that his motivations are automatically more pure than Oswald's might theoretically have been.  I say that with no political bias implied, but merely as a human observation.
Back to Jake: he makes for an interesting protagonist in that he is something of a blank slate, not dissimilar to Johnny Smith from The Dead Zone in that regard, or Pet Sematary's Louis Creed, to name another.  Jake's character traits aren't terribly pronounced, so that he can serve as a point of identification for the reader.  In other words, Jake is that reliable standby, the Everyman, within whom the reader can set up shop with his own concerns and desires.  And who among us is not motivated, in some way, by love?

The quotation which I borrowed for the beginning of this essay points toward that idea.  When the clerk at the pawn shop tells Jake that "at the bottom it's always a woman," what he really means is that all actions are motivated by love in some way: we act from the desire to attain it, or to keep it, or perhaps in frustration at being denied it.

Jake tells us right up front that he is a relatively unemotional man: "I have never been what you'd call a crying man," he says in the novel's opening sentence.  The untitled prologue of the novel continues from that point, detailing a partial history of ways in which Jake has proven to be the type of man who doesn't cry ... but also ways in which he has proven to be exactly the type of man who does cry.  As a child, he cried when he found out his pet dog died (possibly as a result of his own carelessness); as an adult, he cried when he found out his mother died.  He never cried in front of his wife, however, which is a big part of the reason why she became his ex-wife.

This prologue is a mini-masterpiece in terms of how effectively it establishes a bond between the reader and Jake.  It is utterly unrelated to Oswald and Kennedy, except in the sense that Jake admits to us that everything that followed -- i.e., his trips into the past -- resulted directly from an instance in which he was a crying man: his reading of an essay by an adult-education student, and the degree to which he is affected by the tale of a family torn apart by a madman with a hammer.

In the relationship Jake forges with Harry Dunning, the janitor whose tale inspires such pathos in him, we see a foretaste of the type of emotional undercurrents which will come to define Jake: a desire to protect innocence when it is threatened by outside forces.  The argument can probably be made that the only reason he befriends Al Templeton -- the owner of the diner which houses the time bubble -- is that he feels some sympathy for Al: he enjoys Al's cooking, and wants to defend it from the semi-serious charges that the low prices must indicate the use of substandard ingredients in the food.  From there, he listens to Al's seemingly-crazy story, and grants his seemingly-crazy requests, out of a respect and sympathy for Al's seemingly-crazy situation.  None of this is present in the narrative, per se: it seems to instead be an instinctual part of Jake's character.  He may not be a crying man, but he is certainly a caring man.

What ultimately motivates Jake to take the insane step of agreeing to spend five years in the past isn't so much the idea of saving Kennedy, but of saving Harry the janitor from a life of being mocked by students as "Hoptoad Harry" due to a pronounced limp and slight mental feebleness.  Harry has also mentioned a sister, who was funny enough that he and his family thought she would be the next Lucille Ball; Jake is moved by the thought that this sister was never allowed to blossom into the natural cut-up she seemed destined to be, and is determined to stop her father from splitting her skull open.  Similarly, once it becomes apparent that changing the past is possible, Jake completely buys the notion that saving Kennedy can also save untold other lives, including Robert Kennedy, possibly Martin Luther King Jr., thousands of soldiers who would go on to die in Vietnam, etc.

Really, though, it's all about Harry and his family; even once he's saved part of Harry's family only to discover that it caused a non-4F Harry to go to Vietnam and die, Jake saves the Dunning family a second time, rationalizing that saving them more completely might change Harry's fate for the better.  And, he rationalizes, if he is able to save Kennedy, it will probably keep Harry from ever having to go to Vietnam in the first place.

How is this (you might be asking), at the bottom, about a woman?  The key to Jake's character, for me, is that he is haunted by the failure of his first marriage: to an alcoholic whose addictions he was unable to salve.  I take a great deal of what transpires in 11/22/63 as an instance of Jake running away from that failed relationship (in something similar to the way Lee Harvey Oswald ran all the way to Russia to try and escape his domineering mother).  The former Christy Epping is never present as a character in the novel, and Jake spends only a tiny amount of time talking about her, but the prologue is very much about how her accusations toward Jake -- the charge that he is emotionally blocked, for instance -- have affected him.  I look at his reactions to Harry's essay as being partially due to Christy's judgment of him: in other words, Jake cries over Harry's words partially because Christy has suggested he is incapable of crying.  He weeps, then, not merely for Harry and for his lost family, but also for his lost relationship with Christy.

Later in the novel, once Jake has formed a serious relationship with Sadie Dunhill in the past, Christy seems to be almost entirely forgotten.  Then there comes a scene in which Jake is trying to snap Sadie back to consciousness after she has overdosed on pills and alcohol; his tongue slips at one point, and he calls Sadie by his ex-wife's name, illustrating the fact that while Christy might be out of his life -- and gone from his conscious thoughts to such an extent that she is scarcely mentioned during the course of an 850-page first-person narrative -- she is still very much present beneath the surface of things.

The bulk of the novel's love story, of course, is given over to the relationship between Jake (as "George Amberson") and Sadie, and it is this relationship which is probably going to be the one people take away from 11/22/63 the most forcefully.  King has worked directly with the love story before, in both Wizard and Glass and Bag of Bones, as well as Hearts In Atlantis; it isn't anything new.  It may be even stronger here than in those novels, however.  The relationship between "George" and Sadie -- and, later, the one between Jake and Sadie (no, they're not quite the same) -- feels rather idealized in some ways, but that is its appeal, and I think it's also a purposeful move on King's part.

Well over a hundred pages of the novel is focused almost entirely on the blossoming relationship between George and Sadie, and while I have no doubt that this is the rocky shore on which some readers' ships will become grounded, to me it is the heart of the novel.  We all come to novels like this for different reasons, of course, and those who have come to 11/22/63 purely to read an adventure tale about a time-traveling reverse-assassin may read this section -- with its focus on first meetings, football-heroes turned thespians, small-town gossip, and the minutiae of staging first Of Mice and Men and then a lowbrow vaudeville show -- and wonder what King was thinking.  It's not an entirely unjustified reaction.

For me, though, these are the novel's best sections, and the sections which I feel meant perhaps the most to King; his writing here -- as well as in the prologue and in the novel's final few scenes -- seems more passionate, more lively, and I find it hard to imagine that that is happenstance.

Instead, I think it's part of the plot.  It's going to take me a bit of digression in order to get back to that point, but I will get back to it.  

One of the novel's major elements is the notion that while the past can be changed, it really doesn't want to be changed, and will resist anyone who tries to change it.  Frankly, I don't feel quite smart enough to be able to write fully about that element of the story.  It all makes sense to me, but in ways I struggle to put into words.  I've watched enough time-travel movies -- from The Terminator to Back to the Future to Doctor Who -- to feel comfortable exploring the notion of the past being somewhat obdurate.  I've never, however, seen the idea of changing the past portrayed quite as King portrays it here: it feels utterly implacable, and the fate vs. free-will dynamic -- while never discussed as such in the novel -- comes into play heavily.

We learn toward the end of the novel that in saving Kennedy, Jake has committed an act that, if permitted to proceed unchecked, will eventually literally tear the Earth to pieces.  Numerous things happen as a result which cause the Mark 2 version of 2011 to be a far worse place than the one Jake came from, but in addition to that, there are apparently consequences which will cause all of reality -- all universes, everywhere -- to fall into disaster.  (I've got a lot more to say about that, too, but it's going to have to wait a bit: a digression within a digression seems like a bad idea.)  With that horrible knowledge in mind, Jake returns to 2011, but it's not this that motivates him to return again to 1958 (thereby resetting the damage he has done): instead, it is the desire to bring Sadie back to life, even if he can only restore her to the life she knew before meeting him.  From there, he returns yet again to 2011, to the unsullied, unchanged future which he was already living when the novel began.

One thing Jake learns when he returns to 2011 for the final time is that Sadie is still alive, and that even without the presence of "George Amberson" in her past, she was still attacked by her husband.  It seems that she was always fated to be disfigured by Johnny Clayton, and it also seems that she was always fated to survive his attack on her.  I spent a great deal of the novel reading events from the perspective that when something would happen that seemed to be a roadblock to Jake's attempts to change the course of future events, it was because the past -- or whatever force controls it -- was actively trying to course-correct.  And in some cases, this is obviously true: for example, the severe beating Jake takes at the hands of Akiva Roth and his men could not have happened if Jake had not been present in the past, so that incident represents a case of the time-stream changing itself to attempt to remove Jake as a threat.

This is, however, not the case with Jake's relationship with Sadie, though I initially took it to be.  As Jake learns in 2011, Sadie never married a second time, and never had children; it is almost as if she was a trap designed to ensnare Jake, and to then form a bond of love with him so strongly that he would ultimately act in her best interests, to keep her alive even if it means erasing his relationship with her from ever having existed.  That these best interests would also require Jake to undo the damage he has done to the time-stream (and, therefore, to the fabric of reality) is undoubtedly not a coincidence.

It's more complex than that, though, and I say that as a means of ending my digression: we're back now to the idea that the scenes in which Jake is simply living as George Amberson are the true heart of the novel.  

It feels to me as if Sadie really IS a trap set up by the past, but one which is designed to keep Jake from ever even trying to save Kennedy at all.  The universe seems to have put a genuine soul mate in Jake's path, and she is one whom we know -- from Jake's final return to 2011 -- was never destined to have a significant relationship with another man afterward.  Many obstacles are put in Jake's path during the course of his attempts to save Kennedy, but none are more potent than Sadie, because Jake is tempted (by virtue of loving her and wanting to keep on loving her) to simply give up the entire idea, and live out the remainder of his life with her, teaching school and living a small-town existence.  Again, the universe seems to be constructed so as to allow for this: Sadie has no greater destiny, and (given that the universe isn't pulling itself apart trying to keep him in 2011) Jake doesn't seem to, either.  Furthermore, the time-stream arranges itself so that when Jake returns to the 2011 in which Kennedy lived, he is greeted by the one other thing which might be able to cause him to rethink his actions: he finds that he hasn't actually made life better at all for Harry Dunning, who is still a cripple living in Lisbon Falls.

This all gets complex to deal with if you're not a physicist, but the way it makes sense to me is that the universe had arranged itself so as to permit for the possibility of Jake living in the past with Sadie.  It was not, perhaps, the first and best option -- that would be the lack of any tampering at all with the past -- but as an emergency Plan B, the universe could live with it.  I say all of that as a means of offering proof that the scenes between George and Sadie are purposefully idyllic; they do represent a bit of a structural and stylistic detour in the novel, but in a way that actually advances the plot.  Betcha didn't know you could advance the plot by stopping it in its tracks, but this novel is my proof that it can certainly be done.  Like I said, those sections were my favorite in the novel, because they seemed to offer Jake the fulfillment of the love he seemed to be motivated by.

The tragedy of the novel is that Jake didn't take the universe up on its offer.  He is too obstinate to simply abandon his plans, and when Sadie is attacked by Clayton he gets another opportunity; again, he is too obstinate.  She recovers a bit, both physically and emotionally, and actually joins Jake in his quest to save Kennedy.  They are successful, but at a price: it costs Sadie her life, and Jake finds that he feels no triumph at having changed the future.  If she can't be a part of the future, then it's worthless to him.

The novel culminates with some of King's most poetic writing ever.  Jake, taking on his familiar guise as George Amberson one final time, travels back to Jodie, Texas, where he attends a Citizen of the Century celebration in honor of Sadie.  She is an elderly woman, now, but he introduces himself, and there is still a spark of some sort between them.  They dance, and it almost seems as if Sadie recognizes him; for the merest of moments, as they dance, time falls away.  It is a haunting ending, brutally sad and yet somehow redemptive.

King has occasionally struggled to find a way to properly end his novels; this is not one of those times.

I'd be a bit remiss in my duties if I didn't spend at least some time talking about the actual JFK/Oswald elements of the novel.  The novel has proven to be somewhat controversial in terms of the degree to which King committed to the notion that Oswald was, indeed, a lone gunman; in his version of the story, there was no conspiracy.

I can understand how and why this upsets some people.  For all I know, there WAS a massive conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy; I'm no expert on the subject, so I can't speak from any place of knowledge.  However, King has said in interviews that he researched the subject extensively, and came down on the side of thinking that Oswald had acted alone.  In terms of the novel itself, that's good enough for me.

And in King's story, it's a woman at the bottom of Oswald's behavior, just as surely as it is with Jake's behavior.  Here, it's his mother, Marguerite, who is depicted as a shrew of a woman.  Historical evidence has pointed to her being an incredibly possessive and overbearing mother figure for Lee, and it appears to be the case that many of his adult actions were -- either directly or indirectly -- designed to allow him to escape her influence.  He was never able to fully do so, however.  Marguerite is not a major character in the novel in terms of page-count, but her influence is keenly felt; Jake even thinks to himself after observing her at one point that he has more sympathy for Lee Harvey than he had for Frank Dunning (the murderous father of Harry the janitor).

Another important figure in the novel: Marina Oswald, Lee's wife, who is depicted as an extremely sympathetic figure.  I know nothing of her in terms of her actual life, but as she is depicted by King, she is a sad, beaten woman, but a vibrant and lovely one despite all of her hardships.  One suspects that King might have fallen ever so slightly in love with her while writing about her, and indeed, Jake himself notes the similarities between her and Sadie, his own object of affection.

As a final note, I'd like to mention the climactic scenes in which Jake and Sadie race through the streets of Dallas, desperately trying to avoid the malicious clutches of the past and get to Oswald in time to prevent him from firing the fatal shot.  These scenes are among the most tense and thrilling King has ever written.

Coming up as soon as I can finish putting the polishing touches on it, I'll have a second piece about 11/22/63, this one devoted to the various cross-overs between it and other King stories. 

For now, I'll leave you with a few additional images, stolen from various websites:

Jack Ruby shoots Lee Harvey Oswald

one wonders how history might have been different if Oswald had been able to content himself with this existence...
a photo from Life magazine, taken 11/23/63: (L-R) Marguerite holding infant Rachel; family friend Ruth Paine; June Oswald; Marina Oswald
Lee Harvey Oswald's mugshot


  1. This is a fantastic review -- it was recommended on the Stephen King forums and I am so glad that I read it. Real insight here, and also as someone who is a longtime King reader and far from a romance novel fan, I agree wholeheartedly on the power of King's Jake/Sadie story. I really wish Jake had taken the universe up on that 'plan B' and I hope that he finds that the LL Bean was a little slow coming to take away the diner and limps his way back into her life. Great work, I will keep reading this blog!

  2. Pete, thanks so much for the kind words!

  3. My boyfriend and I finished this book about a month ago, and I came across your blog researching which S.K. novel to take on next. Your review pulled the apocalyptic ending into focus for me, and that's a really good thing because I thought it was odd.

    A subject my boyfriend and I discussed at length during our reading of 11/22/63 was something you touched on in the review above--the similarity between Jake's mission and Oswald's. Of course Jake's the protagonist & Oswald is the bad guy we've been brought up to despise in history classes, etc. so it's easy to take it for granted that Jake is in the right. But, as you said, "I don't know that [Jake's] motivations are automatically more pure than Oswald's might theoretically have been." That didn't seem obvious to us either.

    It's interesting. Jake and Oswald are, on the surface, making the same logical move: "I value x, so I"ll do y in hopes of increasing the amount of x in the world." Ultimately, Jake and Oswald even have to commit the same act--murder--to accomplish their goal. They're both working from the assumption that their values are good ones and the world would be better with more of them.

    The main difference between the choices Jake and Oswald are making is, Jake thinks his deed can be undone if it doesn't turn out to be for the good. Of course, later on he finds out that's not actually the case... but that has no bearing on Jake's mental state, his intentions. Oswald, on the other hand, intends to make a permanent change in the world, and come what may! That's why, even though he and Jake are in practice doing the same thing, Oswald is crazy and Jake is just being reckless (or hopeful?).

    Jake's belief and actions were purported with room for error. In fact, the whole book Jake tries to eliminate the possibility that he and Al might have been wrong about Oswald. He's very cautious. But Oswald takes the "rightness" of his beliefs for granted, thereby committing the rest of the world to living with the consequences of his actions, whatever they may be, forevermore.

    Maybe due to fate Oswald really didn't have a choice in the matter. Maybe he had to kill Kennedy, and maybe some evil force overcame him and acted by his hand. If that's the case, Oswald could be innocent of the deed itself. But he still intended to forcefully and negligently bend the world to his preference. That's damning. Jake, however, tried to minimize risk and damage to the best of his ability, believing he could literally do no harm.

    The way I see it, even though Jake actually did more damage to the fabric of the universe, his intentions were still purer than Oswald's.

    1. Thanks a bunch for writing that! I remember having the thought that, from a certain point of view, Jake's mission is just as morally tainted as Oswald's was, and being sort of fascinated by the idea, even as I was mostly rejecting it. It's all in how you look at it, I guess.

      For me, one of the things that the novel did a great job of establishing is the idea that actions have reverberations, and that they cannot be predicted. It's such a great twist of the knife that in King's alternative history, Kennedy dying ends up being preferable. In real-world terms, of course, there's no way to know one way or the other, and I personally would tend toward thinking Kennedy living would have been a good thing.

      But can I know for sure? Absolutely not. And King, in fictional form, saying that the world might have been better off without Kennedy is a master stroke from the guy who's been telling us all about things we didn't want to hear for decades now.

      All things considered, though, I definitely agree with you: relatively speaking, Jake is absolutely the hero whereas Oswald is the villain.

      Thanks so much for stopping by! I appreciate your thoughts.

  4. Two thumbs up! Stephen King is tops.

  5. Hey Mr. Burnette,
    I just finished re-reading 11/22/63 and wholeheartedly agree with your conclusion that it's a love story at its core. That's how I thought about it ever since I first read it. The Jake-Sadie romance might be 'rose colored glasses' type of relationship but it still gets me. The ending is a classic that breaks my heart in a happy way.

    1. Absolutely! One of King's very best.

    2. Mr. Burnett,
      I'll burden you with a few more comments since I don't really have anyone else to share this with. Lucky you!

      The first time I read it, I just figured I was in for a regular old time-travel story. I didn't know anything about Sadie, so I was shocked and saddened at the end. This time I around knew what to expect, and it hit me even harder. I don't think I can read it anymore.

      As an aside, lately I've seen this very tall, over six feet, elderly woman at church sometimes. She's ramrod straight, and I'll never be able to look at her without thinking of her as Sadie.
      Oh well, keep up the great work!

    3. I read the novel more or less the exact same way you did: as though it were just -- "just" -- a time-travel adventure. The fact that it became a love story really surprised me, and I'm very glad that it did. The story works well even if you already know it, but I wouldn't trade that experience of being surprised by it.

      That's cool about seeing a Sadie doppelganger at church! But yes, I can certainly imagine how you'd see her and have a bit of a real-world reaction to her based on a fictional character. That's pretty cool, I'd say.