Magazine article The American Conservative

To Save JFK

Magazine article The American Conservative

To Save JFK

Article excerpt

11/22/63: A Novel, Stephen King, Scribner, 849 pages

History is the best story: you can't make that stuff up. It takes an Olympian imagination to render historical events believable, much less comprehensible. The most outlandish part of Stephen King's 11/22/63 is its account of the real life and adventures of Lee Harvey Oswald and his shadowy mentor George de Mohrenschildt. Compared to that farrago of double lives, the time-travel fantasy plot seems unexceptional.

Readers don't turn to Stephen King for belles lettres, but his writing habits are highly effective for storytelling, plot development, character composition (or decomposition), and other such homely virtues. King specializes in what T.S. Eliot called life's "partial horror." He's a master at seeing the grinning skull beneath the skin, the manic gleam in the eye of the quiet neighbor, the evil that somehow permeates whole towns. He understands how a Thing can be hungry and want to feed upon whatever is at hand: fear, jealousy, shame, regret, anger, weakness--even love and happiness.

Almost a quarter-century ago, Tom Wolfe wrote in "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel" (Harper's, November 1989) that he had expected to be overrun and outdone by countless writers scrambling to render the American experience--creating the "literature worthy of her vastness" that social-realist Sinclair Lewis called for in his 1930 Nobel Prize speech--only to see the contemporary novel reduced to a mere "literary game."

What happened to the legacy of Zola and Balzac, Dickens and Thackeray? Here Wolfe applies the same analysis to American literature that he earlier applied to the visual arts ("The Painted Word") and architecture ("From the Bauhaus to Our House"): "The intelligentsia have always had contempt for the realistic novel--a form that wallows so enthusiastically in the dirt of everyday life and the dirty secrets of class envy and that, still worse, is so easily understood and obviously relished by the mob, i.e., the middle class."

The intelligentsia look down not only on realism but on all the popular genres: mysteries, war stories, bodice-rippers, Westerns, spy thrillers, science fiction, horror, and humor. But a lot of good writing, and the best storytelling, can be found in those genres, on the page and on screens both big and small, from "The Sopranos" to "My Name Is Earl."

Why do serious writers flee realism? Out of despair, Wolfe says, at being unable to keep up with a reality that grows more fantastical by the day:

   The imagination of the novelist is
   powerless before what he knows
   he's going to read in tomorrow
   morning's newspaper.... [Yet] the
   answer is not to [abandon] the
   rude beast ... the life around us
   ... but to do what journalists do,
   or are supposed to do, which is to
   wrestle the beast and bring it to
   terms.

Stephen King has always enjoyed a good wrestle with the beast. He made his debut with Carrie in 1974, nearly four decades ago, and has been mulling over the big idea behind 11/22/63 for some time. The novel required years of historical research and plumbing his own memories of growing up in the 1950s. The plot is this: Jake Epping is a 35-year-old high-school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who is convinced by a dying friend to check out a portal into the past--11:58 a.m. on September 9, 1958, to be exact--that he's discovered in the rear pantry of his diner.

Each time Jake breaches the portal, the past "resets," effacing any alterations he has previously made. He ages at a normal rate while in the past, although only two seconds have elapsed in the present whenever he returns. Jake soon signs on to his friend's urgent mission: to prevent the Kennedy assassination by first spying on Oswald to ascertain that he's the lone assassin, then eliminating him. Save JFK, they figure, and the evils that come after--including escalation of the Vietnam War ("Is the butcher's bill that high if Kennedy doesn't die in Dallas? …

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