Now comes the book’s biggest stretch: It just so happens that Al Templeton, who runs the local diner in Lisbon Falls, Me., has a portal to the past in the diner’s storeroom. Al shows Jake the portal, gives Jake a few supplies (like a plastic pocket protector) and sends him into 1958. Jake gets himself to Derry, Me., the site of many previous ghastly episodes in the King universe. (Derry was home to “It.”) Derry is also where Frank Dunning attacked his family with a sledgehammer, and Jake would like to do something about that.
This is a sidelong way of introducing Jake’s special abilities. At first it seems like an overlong prelude to the assassination story. But it turns out that people and places in Derry will have odd repercussions later. Mr. King writes of harmonics, echoes and “the butterfly effect,” two ways of saying that tampering with the past is a dangerous business. He gives those ideas a trial run in Derry and treats Derry as a sinister premonition of what Dallas will be like in 1963.
Yet Jake, who uses the alias George Amberson for time travel, finds himself deeply drawn to this lost world. Food tastes better. Music is more fun. There’s a lot to like, even if the women of the era are so easily abused by their husbands. The Dunning family dynamics wind up prefiguring what goes on between Lee and Marina Oswald, making it that much easier for Mr. King to fold the Oswalds into the novel later on. By the time they appear — and Mr. King has fine tricks for observing them without too much narrative fakery — they are already a little bit familiar and not at all hard to accept.
Jake commits himself to a long stretch in the past as he moves to Texas and awaits the assassination plot. While he is there, in a little town called Jodie, he falls enchantingly in love with the local librarian, Sadie, in ways that make this an unusually romantic novel for its author. Just to keep things interesting, Mr. King makes Sadie smart enough to sense that there’s something odd about her new flame. And he makes Jake so mired in secrets that he does not dare explain himself, not even to the woman he adores.
“11/22/63” finds unexpected humor in the ways Jake’s knowledge of the future betray him. He gets in terrible trouble with Sadie for singing a Rolling Stones song, for example. And he supports himself in part by making sports bets that he is guaranteed to win. But all of these small touches become suspenseful once the Oswalds arrive, Lee prepares to take a shot at Gen. Edwin Walker in April 1963, and Jake must jump over terrible, unexpected hurdles in order to keep up with him.
This novel is more personal than political. But Mr. King has done considerable research into Oswald-related figures like the petroleum geologist George de Mohrenschildt, a man well known to conspiracy theorists. And he constructs an alternate reality in which the Kennedy presidency is not interrupted. It is not what his readers are liable to expect.
One of Jake’s main motives for intervening in history is to save lives by changing the chain of events that led to the Vietnam war. But Mr. King, who consulted with Richard and Doris Kearns Goodwin about possible plotlines, turns that aspect of the book into one of its most frightening.
The pages of “11/22/63” fly by, filled with immediacy, pathos and suspense. It takes great brazenness to go anywhere near this subject matter. But it takes great skill to make this story even remotely credible. Mr. King makes it all look easy, which is surely his book’s fanciest trick.Continue reading the main story
By Stephen King
Illustrated. 849 pages. Scribner. $35.
SPOILER WARNING: These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points, if you have not read the book.
Author: Stephen King
Page Count: 849
Genre: Alternate History
Tone: Nostalgic, Compelling, Gritty
Questions composed by MPPL Staff:
1. What was the purpose of the Norman Mailer epigraph? Do you think it stated Stephen King’s personal politics?
2. Al Templeton, the owner of Al’s Diner, told Jake of a door that led back in time to 1958. He then showed Jake the door and told him to see for himself. Jake went through the door. Would you have? Why or why not?
3. It isn’t enough to step back in time, Al wants to change a watershed moment – he wants to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Do you think this was a good idea or a bad idea?
4. What is the butterfly effect? Taking in consideration the positive and negative possibilities of the butterfly effect in regard to the JFK assassination, would you have gone back in the portal to change history?
5. Did Al corner Jake into going back in time? Did Jake have time to think about if he should act on the time portal?
6. If you had gone back in time from 1958 – 1963…what events would you have wanted to witness?
7. When Al and Jake both walk through the portal, the Yellow Card Man greets them. Who is he? Why is the Yellow Card Man there? What does the color of his card represent?
8. When people step through the portal are they going to the past they know or to something else?
9. Why does the Yellow Card Man/Green Card Man say it is bad to go through portals?
10. Early on, Jake said of Derry, “there was something wrong with that town, and I think I knew it from the first.” (p. 121) Jake says it was a town that kept secrets (p. 149) Can an entire town be “wrong”? How does a town keep secrets?
11. Stephen King has a tendency to subtly (or not) connect his novels and stories. Did anyone notice any settings or characters that were references from other works by Stephen King?
12. Were you surprised by how long it took for Jake/George to truly start tracking Lee Harvey Oswald? Why did it take him so long? How did Jake kill time in the past?
13. When did 11/22/63 start to grab you? Did it ever lose you?
14. Were there any moments that shocked you?
15. Why did Jake want to save the Dunning family from slaughter? Was it personal? How did it relate to him then saving the President?
16. Was Harry Dunning’s sister grateful that Jake saved her family from slaughter (the first time)? (p. 240)
17. Jakes usually paints the past as better – better prices, nicer people, even the root beer tasted fuller. Are there ever any instances Jake points out to show how the past is not better than the present? (Ex: race issues, women’s equality, pollution, medical technology)
18. Jake/George falls in love with Sadie. Was this a good idea? Would you have allowed yourself to do this?
19. How does Jake’s mission to stop JFK’s assassination interfere with his relationship? (pg. 408)
20. How do Jake and Sadie get back together? (p. 523)
21. Jake/George invites Sadie to the future (p.620). How did Sadie answer? How would you have answered if you were her? If you were Jake, would you have offered?
22. What is Sadie’s reaction to learning that Jake was attempting to save President Kennedy from assassination?
23. Do you think people today would still react as strongly to a United States president being assassinated as they did when Kennedy was shot? Why or why not?
24. What was your first impression of Lee Harvey Oswald? Did your view of him ever change?
25. As Jake spies on Oswald, he is witness to Oswald beating his wife. Does he ever step in to help her? Why or why not? What would you have done?
26. Jake states that the past is obdurate. Give some examples of the past not wanting to change.
27. Was there a reason for the past not wanting to change?
28. Jake is constantly seeing parallels of people and settings on his quest. What are some examples of parallels or connections he sees? (Ex: The bookies were alike, the pharmacists were alike, Sadie was a Dunning, etc.)
29. Why did Jake hold back from Sadie that he was regaining his memory? Was this a good idea?
30. Did Jake end up saving the president? Did he do it alone or with help?
31. What happened to Sadie?
32. What happened to Oswald?
33. Would you describe Jake as a hero? How would you describe him?
34. Did saving Kennedy make Jake’s original world a better place?
35. Who alerted Jake to the history of the future that he created? (Harry Dunning)
36. Why were there so many earthquakes?
37. Does Jake end up ever getting to see Sadie again?
38. Did you read Stephen King’s afterword? What did you think of the opinions you found there? Are you going to read any of the books he mentioned on the Kennedy conspiracy?
39. Have you read other books by Stephen King? Is this the kind of book you expected out of the author? Will you read more by him?
40. Are there any events that you would be tempted to go back in time to change?
Lit Lovers book discussion questions
Q interview with Stephen King
Tom Perotta interviews Stephen King
Errol Morris interviews Stephen King
Lee Harvey Oswald’s boarding house
Texas Book Depository
JFK Library facts on assassination
If you liked 11/22/63, try…
Underworld by Don DeLillo
Fatherland by Robert Harris
The Third Bullet by Stephen Hunter