First edition cover
|November 8, 2011|
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
11/22/63 is a novel by Stephen King about a time traveler who attempts to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which occurred on November 22, 1963 (the novel's titular date). The novel was announced on King's official site on March 2, 2011. A short excerpt was released online on June 1, 2011, and another excerpt was published in the October 28, 2011, issue of Entertainment Weekly. The novel was published on November 8, 2011 and quickly became a number-one bestseller. It stayed on The New York Times Best Seller list for 16 weeks. 11/22/63 won the 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Mystery/Thriller and the 2012 International Thriller Writers Award for Best Novel, and was nominated for the 2012 British Fantasy Award for Best Novel and the 2012 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.
The novel required considerable research to accurately portray the late 1950s and early 1960s. King commented on the amount of research it required, saying "I've never tried to write anything like this before. It was really strange at first, like breaking in a new pair of shoes."
According to King, the idea for the novel first came to him in 1971, before the release of his first novel, Carrie (1974). He was going to title it Split Track. However, he felt a historical novel required more research than he was willing to do at the time and greater literary talent than he possessed. Like his novel Under the Dome (2009), he abandoned the project, returning to the story later in life.
King first talked publicly about the idea in Marvel Spotlight issue The Dark Tower (January 27, 2007), prior to the beginning of the ongoing comic book adaptation of King's Dark Tower series. In a piece in the magazine titled "An Open Letter From Stephen King", he writes about possible original ideas for comics:
I'd like to tell a time-travel story where this guy finds a diner that connects to 1958... you always go back to the same day. So one day he goes back and just stays. Leaves his 2007 life behind. His goal? To get up to November 22, 1963, and stop Lee Harvey Oswald. He does, and he's convinced he's just FIXED THE WORLD. But when he goes back to '07, the world's a nuclear slag-heap. Not good to fool with Father Time. So then he has to go back again and stop himself..... only he's taken on a fatal dose of radiation, so it's a race against time.
Commenting on the book as historical fiction, King said: "This might be a book where we really have a chance to get an audience who's not my ordinary audience. Instead of people who read horror stories, people who read The Help or People of the Book might like this book".
King and longtime researcher Russ Dorr prepared for the novel by reading many historical documents and newspaper archives from the period, looking at clothing and appliance ads, sports scores, and television listings. The book contains detailed minutiae such as the 1958 price of a pint of root beer (10 cents) or a haircut (40 cents). King and Dorr traveled to Dallas, where they visited Oswald's apartment building (now a private residence), found the home of Gen. Edwin Walker (a target of an assassination attempt by Oswald), and had a private tour of the Sixth Floor Museum in the Texas School Book Depository. King studied various conspiracy theories, ultimately coming to the conclusion that Oswald acted alone. King met with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, an assistant to Lyndon B. Johnson and the author of books about several presidents, and used some of her ideas of worst-case political scenarios that might occur in the absence of Kennedy's assassination.
The trade hardcover edition features a dust jacket that is a faux newspaper front page, with the front of the jacket featuring an article recounting the real historical event of Kennedy's assassination, and the back featuring an alternate history article speaking of the event as just a failed assassination attempt that Kennedy survives unscathed. The newspaper headlines were written by Stephen King. In addition to the regular trade edition, Scribner produced a signed limited edition of 1,000 copies, 850 of which were made available for sale beginning on November 8, 2011 (ISBN 978-1-4516-6385-3). This edition features a different dust jacket, exclusive chapter-heading photos, and a DVD. Due to a website problem on November 8, most copies remained unsold and a drawing ran from November 10 to 11 to sell the remaining copies.
There was also a limited edition of 700 published in the United Kingdom. It was a slipcased hardcover with deluxe binding, photographic endpapers, and a facsimile signature, and included a DVD.
On July 24, 2012, Gallery Books published a trade paperback edition of the novel (ISBN 978-1451627299), which contains an additional "book club kit", featuring an interview with Stephen King about 11/22/63, a set of discussion questions, and a period playlist with King's commentary and recipes.
Jake Epping is a recently divorced high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, earning extra money teaching a GED class. Epping gives an assignment to his adult students, asking them to write about a day that changed their lives. One of the students, a learning-impaired janitor named Harry Dunning, submits an assignment describing the night his alcoholic father murdered his mother and siblings with a hammer and injured Harry, causing him brain damage; the story emotionally affects Jake, and the two become friends after Harry earns his GED.
Two years later, in June 2011, Jake stops by a local diner and speaks with the proprietor, Al, who asks Jake to meet him at his diner the next day. When Jake arrives, he is shocked to see that Al seems to have aged years since the previous day. Al explains that he is dying and that his appearance is attributable to his having time traveled and lived for years in the past. Al's method of time travel is a time portal he discovered in his diner's pantry, which he used to transport himself to 1958. Doubting Al's story at first, Jake travels through the portal, where he encounters an addled wino whom Al has dubbed the "Yellow Card Man" due to the color of a card on the man's hat. Jake spends an hour in 1958 before returning to the present, after which Al explains that he's figured out the basics of how the portal functions:
- Every journey through the portal transports the traveler to September 9, 1958, at 11:58 a.m.
- No matter how long someone stays in the past—hours, days, weeks, or years—only two minutes have elapsed when they return to 2011.
- Past events can be changed; however, subsequent use of the portal "resets" the timeline and nullifies all changes made on the previous excursion.
- The "obdurate" past throws up obstacles to prevent history from being changed. Such resistance is proportional to the magnitude of the change.
Because the portal gives one the ability to alter the present by changing an event in the past, Al reveals that he concocted a plan to prevent John F. Kennedy's assassination, hoping that doing so would change history for the better, as he attributes many bad things that happened in the world to events that would not have occurred had JFK lived. He spent four years in the past after entering the portal the previous night, traveling to Dallas, Texas to track Lee Harvey Oswald, plotting to kill the would-be assassin during his attempted murder of General Edwin Walker. His delay was due to the fact that he wanted to be absolutely sure that Oswald was a killer and would act alone. Al developed cancer, so he had to give up his mission, knowing he would not live long enough to complete it. He recruits a reluctant Jake to complete the task instead.
As an experiment, Jake travels back to 1958 to save Harry's family, who will be killed by his father, Frank Dunning, on Halloween night. Despite many obstacles, he succeeds in saving all but one of Harry's siblings, then returns to 2011 hopeful he improved Harry's life, only to learn his actions led to Harry dying in Vietnam. While Jake is still trying to process this information, Al commits suicide, forcing Jake to act immediately, before the death is known and the diner is sealed.
With no preparation, Jake re-enters the portal and discovers that the "Yellow Card Man" has cut his own throat and the yellow card is now black. He ignores it and kills Frank ahead of Frank's murderous rampage. After resolving one of Al's other missions—preventing a hunter from accidentally shooting a little girl—Jake makes his way, first to Florida, then to the small Dallas-area town of Jodie to wait for Oswald's arrival. Jake spends years establishing his identity in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but comes to suspect history "harmonizes"—he keeps coming into contact with people of the same name, with similar events. He suspects saving one life may result in another person dying in their stead, for example. While in Dallas he meets librarian Sadie Dunhill; the two begin a relationship. Their relationship becomes strained as Sadie is suspicious of Jake's use of colloquialisms and knowledge of song lyrics that didn't exist in her time (specifically Honky Tonk Women by the Rolling Stones). However Jake rescues her from a near fatal overdose as well as an assault by her ex-husband Johnny Clayton. After successfully predicting the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis he eventually tells her he is from the future.
Jake actively stalks Oswald, renting apartments near those of the Oswalds. He begins to wonder if Oswald's only friend in Dallas, George de Mohrenschildt, may somehow be involved in the assassination, and thus hesitates to kill Oswald ahead of time. He thinks de Mohrenschildt is a CIA resource who is supposed to keep an eye on Oswald, but may also be egging Oswald on to kill first General Walker, then JFK. Jake resolves to wait until the Walker attempted assassination before killing Oswald. However, he is unable to learn certain facts and is prevented from accessing several opportunities to kill Oswald.
Finally, the situation comes down to November 22, 1963. With everything going wrong in order to prevent him from his date with destiny, he is only able to reach Oswald seconds before the fateful moment when Kennedy's motorcade drives through Dealey Plaza. Nevertheless, he successfully prevents Oswald from shooting JFK. In a rage, Oswald fires at Jake, ultimately killing Sadie, now Jake's fiancée, who came to help him. Oswald then is killed by outside fire. Jake is interrogated by the Dallas police and the FBI, who try to determine whether he was Oswald's accomplice. He has conversations with both the President and the First Lady. He is numb to all of it, because he has already resolved to travel to 2011 and then back to 1958 again, in order to save Sadie. He leaves Dallas by bus late on the night of Nov. 22, and after he returns to New England, he learns that on Nov. 25, a massive earthquake in Los Angeles has killed thousands. Jake realizes that it is a direct result of his actions.
When he gets to the portal, the Yellow Card Man has been replaced by Zack Lang, a respectable looking man with a Green Card. Zack explains that traveling through the portal does not change the past, but creates multiple "time strings", stretching the bonds of reality. Guarding it is difficult, because the men dispatched to do so must keep myriad realities in their minds at all times (The cards function as a form of radiation detector; a green card indicates the agent is healthy, but as they deteriorate, the card changes to yellow, then to orange, and finally to black). The process is so stressful that it drives most agents to mental illness, alcoholism and eventually suicide, like Kyle, the previous agent. Zack begs Jake to set things right again, or reality itself will cease to exist. Jake steps back through the portal, eager to see what a world without a Kennedy assassination has become. Lisbon Falls is now in ruins. He meets a familiar looking man, who turns out to be Harry Dunning, whose life he saved long ago. Not a brain-damaged janitor, he is a wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet who was paralyzed during the war. Furthermore, there are frequent, massive earthquakes everywhere. Harry tells Jake a concise history of the world between 1963 and 2011, and it's not pretty. In this timeline Vermont Yankee "went China Syndrome" in 1999, spreading radiation across New England and southern Quebec. Jake quickly returns to 1958 and finds Zack much worse for wear. He tells Jake he must now go back to 2011 (since all of Jake's changes are now undone), and ensure the portal is closed. Instead, Jake goes to a hotel and contemplates returning to Texas and Sadie. Ultimately, he returns to his own time, having changed nothing. Looking up old records on the Internet, Jake learns that Sadie survived an attack by her ex-husband, an attack she had only survived before by his rescuing her with the assistance of Deacon who had another of Sadie's friends with him to assist in subduing the attacker.
Jake goes back to Jodie, where Sadie is in her 80s and is being honored by the town with a celebration. The two share a dance and Sadie has no former memory of Jake, but experiences deja vu.
Stephen King published an alternative ending on his official website on January 24, 2012, in which Jake finds a November 2011 news article where Sadie has turned 80. She had married a man named Trevor Anderson, with whom she has five children, eleven grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. This ending was changed to the published version at the suggestion of King's son, writer Joe Hill.
- Jacob "Jake" Epping: an English teacher at Lisbon Falls High School in Maine. Jake uses the alias of "George Amberson" to travel back to 1958, make his way to Texas, and track Lee Harvey Oswald's movements in the months leading up to the Kennedy assassination. Part of Jake's time is spent in Jodie, a small town on the outskirts of Dallas; there, he becomes an English teacher for a consolidated school and becomes well-liked by the students and faculty for his stage productions. Jake is eventually successful in foiling the assassination, but learns that doing so has set his 21st century world on a catastrophic path.
- Al Templeton: the middle-aged proprietor of Al's Diner and long-time acquaintance of Jake. He shares the secret of his time portal, and his plan to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy, with Jake. His plan to do this himself has been thwarted by his cigarette smoking leading to terminal lung cancer. He motivates Jake to carry out his plan by committing suicide by overdosing on his pain medication.
- Harry Dunning: a janitor at Lisbon Falls High School and student in Jake's evening GED class. His submission of a paper about the night his father murdered his mother and siblings with a hammer, provides Jake with motivation and a test case to see if history can be changed. In Jake's second time thread, most of his family members are saved, but Harry serves in the Vietnam War and is killed in the Tet Offensive. In Jake's third time thread, Harry survives Vietnam, but is wheelchair-bound and living alone in a ruined Lisbon Falls.
- Frank Dunning: the father of Harry Dunning. After reading Harry's essay about Frank killing his wife (Harry's mother), two of Harry's brothers and hurting Harry badly while leaving his sister in a coma, Jake sets out to murder Frank to prevent him from causing the killing to happen.
- Deacon Simmons ("Deke"): the principal of Denholm Consolidated High School in Jodie, Texas, who hires "George Amberson" to teach English for a probationary year. Marries Mimi Corcoran and retires. Becomes Jake's good friend, and one of only two 1960s people in whom Jake confides his mission to save JFK.
- Mimi Corcoran Simmons ("Miz Mimi"): the DCHS librarian who is Deke's girlfriend and briefly becomes his second wife, until her death from cancer. Miz Mimi takes a liking to "George" and becomes one of his good friends in 1960s Jodie.
- Sadie Dunhill: from Savannah, Georgia, replaces Miz Mimi as DCHS librarian. She has run away from her abusive and psychotic husband, Johnny; becomes Jake's lover and fiancée. She travels to Reno to get a divorce from Johnny, but he tracks her down to Jodie and holds her hostage to lure Jake. Jake frees Sadie, who is severely disfigured during the ordeal; Johnny commits suicide. Jake and Sadie reconcile, and Sadie ends up helping Jake prevent Oswald from shooting Kennedy. She is killed in the confrontation at the Texas Book Depository, but comes back to life once Jake "resets" the timeline by going through the portal. She survives Johnny's rampage without Jake's help and is still alive in April 2012.
- Ellen Dockerty ("Miz Ellie"): an experienced DCHS teacher who replaces Deke Simmons as principal. Becomes a good friend of Sadie and "George" and admires the latter as a teacher, but is troubled when she discovers his teaching references are fake. She becomes angry at his refusal to tell Sadie what he is up to, but remains Jake's ally when he and Sadie are injured.
- Lee Harvey Oswald: a former expatriate to the Soviet Union, living in a series of squalid residences in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with his wife and child. Oswald, who is vocal about his support for Communist causes, is depicted as an ill-tempered loner who acts out of a self-absorbed desire for fame. In the alternate timeline, Oswald's attempt to kill Kennedy is thwarted by Jake and Sadie, and he is killed by outside fire in his sniper's nest at the Texas School Book Depository.
- Marina Nikolayevna Prusakova: a Soviet immigrant and Oswald's wife. Marina is depicted as being a victim of her husband's physical and verbal abuse, as well the abuse of Oswald's domineering mother, Marguerite. She is depicted as a very sexually attractive woman.
- George de Mohrenschildt: a Soviet expatriate who becomes a friend of Oswald's, inciting the would-be assassin with hyperbolic political rhetoric. Jake eventually realizes, however, that de Mohrenschildt is an apolitical eccentric who merely finds Oswald "amusing". Jake poses as a government agent and threatens de Mohrenschildt into ending his association with Oswald.
- James Patrick Hosty: an FBI agent who interrogates Jake following the assassination attempt. Hosty eventually allows Jake to leave Dallas, mostly out of a desire to avoid responsibility for his previous failure to properly investigate Oswald.
- Malcolm Oliver Perry: a doctor who treats Jake after his beating. In real life, Perry treated President Kennedy as well as Oswald.
- Other historical characters depicted in the book include President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who offer their gratitude to Jake during telephone calls following the assassination attempt. In the alternate timeline after the failed assassination, Kennedy is re-elected in 1964 and dies in 1983. George Wallace, Curtis LeMay and Hubert Humphrey occupy the Oval Office after Kennedy finishes his second term; Ronald Reagan defeats Humphrey in the 1976 election. Hillary Rodham Clinton is President when Jake discovers the dystopia of 2011. Legendary Texas musician Doug Sahm is portrayed as a young man playing with his band at the wedding reception for Deke and Mimi in 1961.
The reviews for 11/22/63 have been generally positive, with The New York Times selecting the novel as one of its top five fiction books of the year and the Las Vegas Review-Journal calling 11/22/63 King's "best novel in more than a decade". The review aggregate site Metacritic judged 30 out of 36 reviews as positive, with four mixed and two negative. NPR book critic Alan Cheuse found no fault with the structure, commenting: "I wouldn't have [King] change a single page." USA Today gave the novel four out of four stars, noting the novel retains the suspenseful tension of King's earlier works but is not of the same genre. "[The novel] is not typical Stephen King." Janet Maslin of The New York Times also commented on the genre change and pacing but felt the writer has built the narrative tightly enough for the reader to suspend disbelief. "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." The review in the Houston Chronicle called the novel "one of King’s best books in a long time" but "overlong", noting: "As is usually the case with King’s longer books, there’s a lot of self-indulgent fat in 11/22/63 that could have been trimmed." The review in the Bangor Daily News commented that the novel "[is] another winner", but provided no critical review of the plot construction. Lev Grossman, in reviewing the novel for Time, called the novel "the work of a master craftsman" but commented that "the wires go slack from time to time" and the book wanders from genre to genre, particularly in the middle. More pointedly, Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin called the novel "a misguided effort in story and writing"; Ulin's primary criticism is the conceit of the story, which requires the reader to follow two plotlines simultaneously – historical fiction built upon the Kennedy assassination as well as the tale of a time traveling English teacher – which adds a page load to the novel that Ulin found excessive.
Awards and honors
- 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Mystery/thriller)
On September 22, 2014, it was announced that a TV series based on the novel was picked up by Hulu. James Franco was chosen to star as the character of Jake Epping. The series premiered on President's Day, February 15, 2016.
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