A few years back, my image of Stephen King was entirely made up of killer clowns and rabid dogs and possessed cars (there’s a thought: Christine as a killer clown car…), the grandpappy of a genre I had absolutely no interest in. I’d read a whole two King novels, one of them because I was forced, and never felt the need to explore further.
I still haven’t read much of his (all those books full of treasure – what a wonderful thought!), but what I have read has made me into a still-astonished fangirl. I mean, I never would have believed that Stephen King could make me cry at work – not “Oh God there’s something under my desk I think it’s a clown” crying but genuinely moved tears. But there I was, surreptitiously wiping my eyes as I listened via Audible. More than once.
He does beautiful, surprising things with words.
“My honors kids were juniors… but they wrote like little old men and little old ladies, all pursey-mouthed and ‘Oo! Don’t slip on that icy patch, Mildred!’”
“…Chased my headlights down Highway 77…”
“No wonder she looked like you could staple a string to the back of her dress and fly her like a kite.”
It’s all of a piece, I thought. It’s an echo so close to perfect you can’t tell which one is the living voice and which is the ghost voice returning. For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dream clock 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.
This is writing I want to wrap myself up in forever.
(I made a note of one exquisite line, and I still have to follow up on it: “Scaring people is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.” And I commented that that should be on the King family arms. And then I started wanting very badly to design the King coat of arms. When I find my pencils…)
I feel a bit ashamed of the fact that I’m so surprised at the warm loveliness of some of this. “Of course it went splendidly, as cream pie fights always do.” My God, that whole chapter was a joy that left me a little giddy as a reader and a little awed as a writer.
I love “The Land of Ago”. I adore “Little by slowly”, and am incorporating it into my vocabulary.
And this made, makes me very happy:
“What might that be, Miss Caltrop?” I asked. “Because I’ve got ice cream in here and I’d like to get home before it melts.”
She gave me a chilly smile that could have kept my French vanilla firm for hours.
“That probably should have told me something, but I had too much on my mind. His story was not the least of it. That’s the curse of the reading class: we can be seduced by a good story, even at the least opportune moments.” He is of my people.
“I know life is hard, I think everyone knows that in their hearts, but why does it have to be cruel as well? Why does it have to bite?”
It’s beautiful – and it’s terrifying. There’s no killer clown here, no dog foaming at the mouth, no vampires. Instead there’s something called the Jimla, which in its mystery and in its explanation is deeply unsettling. And there’s a broom, which isn’t what you expect, but which is at least as awful. The writing can have a rather pure simplicity to it – and it just goes to show that you don’t need all that much to create terror if you do it right. “Something was moving around upstairs.” *shudder*
And it’s not just a masterful way with words: his plotting is equally beautiful. The long long buildup makes actually finally getting to 11/22/63 rather like the first day of summer vacation after a long, long school year. It’s not often that the main event of a book is so very far into a long book, and yet suspense is maintained throughout. “Get rid of one wretched waif, buddy, and you could save millions of lives,” said Al Templeton, and it actually gave me chills. Because, come on: this is a cause worthy of Don Quixote. Whatever negatives can be brought against Kennedy, there’s such an aura of mythical unfulfilled promise about him that the whole premise of the book is irresistible, to Jake as well as the reader. Who knows? If Kennedy had lived, we might not have become tangled in Vietnam. We might have had a fuller, longer space program. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. might not have been assassinated. Race relations might have improved faster, more thoroughly. Who knows? He was young, smart … promising. Who knows…
In the long, slow, gorgeous buildup of the book, Stephen King demonstrates that not only is he quite the expert on torturing his characters … he is also very good at torturing his readers. I don’t know when I’ve seen quite so much foreshadowing and “had I but known”: “Things between us might have progressed faster than they did, except for what happened during that halftime.” He uses this device a lot – but he’s so damned good at it, at making the outcome nothing you ever expected no matter how many hints he gave and how much you thought he was telegraphing, that what might elsewhere be an aggravation is, here, just another way of keeping up the suspense.
Al, who went first through time and taught Jake the little he has to work with, explained to him that time is obdurate. (That not-so-common word gets a workout in this book – it’s great.) The timeline as we know it fights any attempts to make changes. But, I thought, maybe all of the delays were to put Al just where he needed to be, not to try to stop him. I sigh for my innocence…
One thing I do wonder a bit is why Jake’s full concentration was on getting rid of Lee Harvey Oswald, the wretched waif, via the one method. He never seems to have considered other possibilities, which might have been a bit simpler and perhaps more foolproof. He also never seems to consider that if he had taken out Oswald earlier it would have prevented the second daughter’s conception. See “butterflies’ wings”, below.
One fun thing about listening to this while at work was that with the computer right in front of me the whole time I could jump online and look things up right away. (During one such search I came upon a website purporting to show John Connally shooting Kennedy from the middle seat. I … no.) And looking into a certain boxing match, I found this quote: ”Tiger was not the kind of guy to get zonked by an opponent who was way past his prime. Certainly not in 1963.”. And I can only say … that’s kind of the point.
And of course being online anyway meant that whenever the characters were listening to it I could queue up “In the Mood” too. I started it up while listening to George and Sadie’s first dance – and it was one of the best listening experiences I’ve ever had. There are times, like being forced to listen to some of the rancid expulsions from the work radio station, that I would give up environmental advances, women’s lib, and medical achievements for this alone:
The flapping of butterflies’ wings, that time-honored trope of time travel fiction, is here in full force. Jake avers that he does his best to avoid any extra flapping – but, in what may be the only real flaw I can think of, what Jake doesn’t seem to think of immediately is that his taking this apartment and that, this job and that, even this car and that, kept others from taking them. That’s a pretty significant flap. This doesn’t do to dwell on… In fact, this is the tale of an intelligent man – book smart, street stupid – who goes back in time with next to no preparation and doesn’t do too badly – until he really, really does. At one point I became so irritated with Jake’s ineptitude and what happened to him because of it that images of a scathing review and greyed-out stars in the rating area danced in my mind – and then it hit me. Of course he’s inept. Exactly how ept would anyone, any English teacher from 2011, from Maine or anywhere else, with exactly no time to prepare and no history of any of the kind of behavior George Amberson is forced into – how “ept” could anyone like that be in an alien time and – eventually – place? Of course Jake is inept. That’s kind of the point.
I’m so glad I opted for the Audible edition of this. The narrator, Craig Wasson, often sounds like Jimmy Stewart, which somehow was utterly perfect. Also, there are a lot of creepy things in the world, and one of them is a voice like Jimmy Stewart’s voicing Stephen Kingisms. The janitor’s father – Dunning – sounds like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. (I’m sure I’m missing a connection there.) And there were some pretty darn good Kennedy and Cronkite impersonations, as needed. Also? Chaz is awesome, cuz.
I seem to say this a lot lately, but – I learned a bit from 11/22/63. (For one thing, the mental lapse I’ve always suffered in trying to remember that date is now conquered, with the added bonus that I will always now know the birthday of the cousin who was born the day Kennedy was shot.) I didn’t expect the anti-Kennedy faction to be also anti-racist (in a paternalistic, no-really-segregation-is-better-for-everyone sort of way). I didn’t anticipate the inevitability of the fact that there were over 200 death threats against Kennedy on that Texas trip – a very relevant fact. I trust King’s portraits of the historical figures – and his sympathetic portrait of Marina takes away some of my usual unease at real people appearing as characters in novels (especially those still living, or with direct relatives still living). I couldn’t possibly have cared less how King portrayed the “waif” – and the almost reluctant (and very limited) sympathy which he also received, and which King forced me to also feel, caught me off guard.
In the end, the main thing I take away from this sprawling saga of time travel and love and fear is a deep affection for King’s characters. Harry Dunning. Al Templeton. Sadie Dunhill. George Amberson/Jake Epping. “Deke” Simmons, Ellen Dockerty, the kids. Even the Oswalds. I won’t forget them in a hurry. Ever. I’m probably going to apologize to Stephen King in every review I write of his books, because I was an ignorant twit when I dismissed his writing for all those years. Mea culpa.
There’s a film adaptation coming! A series on Hulu – and filming started on June 9, 2015. Dang. Guess I’ll need to subscribe to Hulu.
“Bonus content” for this blog post … one of my very favorite character descriptions, ever, at all:
…That was it, you see: Sadie wasn’t clumsy, she was accident-prone. It was amusing until you realized what it really was – a kind of haunting. She was the girl, she told me later, who got the hem of her dress caught in a car door when she and her date arrived at the senior prom, and managed to tear her skirt right off as they headed for the gym. She was the woman around whom water fountains malfunctioned, giving her a faceful. The woman who was apt to set an entire book of matches on fire when she lit a cigarette, burning her fingers or singeing her hair. The woman whose bra strap broke during parents’ night, or who discovered huge runs in her stockings before school assemblies at which she was scheduled to speak. She was careful to mind her head going through doors, as all sensible tall folks learned to be, but people had a tendency to open them incautiously in her face just as she was approaching them. She’d been stuck in elevators on three occasions, once for two hours, and the year before, in a Savanna department store, the recently installed escalator had gobbled one of her shoes.
I have a little bit of the same curse, though happily less harmful. Buttons come undone, hair fasteners slide, jewelry goes askew or breaks or goes missing. Earphones pop out (like they just did). I will now think of Sadie every time my shoelaces come untied or my earring falls out.
He’s an amazing writer.
I think on bad days I’ll try and remember all those Stephen King novels I haven’t read yet, and it will perk me up a little.