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WesternSFA


11-23-63
by Stephen King
Scribner, $35.00, 849 pp
Published: July 2012

I haven't read King in ages, cuz basically I'm a wuss---horror grosses me out.  This novel is just tension, timing and terror. Despite its length, it was a whopper and I couldn't put it down.  As King states very early on: the past is obdurate. Remember this as you go along.

Al Templeton owns a burger joint in tiny picturesque Lisbon Falls, Maine. He pulls in an acquaintance and frequent customer, Jake Epping, one day to show him something spectacular, and it’s not a new fryer.  In his storage room behind the napkins and mops is a portal to the past.  To 1958.

There is a gatekeeper of sorts on the other side of time, a worn out old alkie with a ticket in his hat. Once Jake gives him a fifty-cent piece, the drunk is off to the liquor store and Jake is allowed to marvel in the simple wonders of living in 1958.  The town of Lisbon Falls was more active then, with a large mill the center of industry, so the population was larger.

Jake doesn't spend long…just an afternoon. And when he returns to the present-day burger joint, only two minutes have gone by. Epping, a high school English teacher just off on summer break is astounded and amazed. As Al wants him to be, because Al has an agenda, of course.  Al is currently dying of late stage lung cancer and he can't let go of life without telling someone about this marvel. He has no wife or kids and Jake, in his thirties, is divorced with no kids.

Al wants him to do something with this ability to go back in time. He has an obsession.  He wants Jake to stop the assassination of JFK in Dallas.

Al has spent a lot of time gathering information in 1958 and perusing the historical record, even acquiring a lot of physical money, clothing, etc. from the time period.  Jake, no surprise, is stunned by this revelation. But it hits home for him - how someone can change another's life with the simplest of actions. Just that week, Jake had passed a man, Harry Dunning, the school janitor in his GED class who had written an amazing flawed, but raw personal account that just stunned Jake with its intensity. Getting his degree is a lifetime accomplishment and meant everything to Dunning.

One small action can change everything.

Jake decides to take up Al's crusade to stop Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas and let JFK go on with his life and presidency.  He makes a few forays into the past, sticking to the area, to see how changing things works-practical and graphic examples of the whole butterfly effect.

It seems to go pretty well; except he finds he has to up his game and utilize more overt actions to get the changes he wants.  But of course, if it doesn't work out, he can return to present day Lisbon Falls, two minutes later and start all over again.

So, before setting off on the adventure of a lifetime, Jake ties up the loose ends in his present-day life and goes back to the past where he takes on the name of George Amberson. He doesn't move to Dallas straight off; he has a lot of prep work to do first. He works his way slowly through events, first, changing the life of Harry Dunning so he doesn't end up as Jake knew him in the present.

Jake maintains his life financially by dealing with bookies and betting on large sporting events.  It works, but there's plenty of danger in the process. He moves slowly further west and finally ends up in the picturesque little town of Jodie, Texas, an hour and a half from Dallas.

He presents himself as an English teacher and gets hired at the local high school. All the while setting things up to keep an eye on Lee Harvey's whereabouts.

Al Templeton had done a lot of the prep work for Jake so that he knew when and where events in Oswald's life occurred. It's so wonderfully complicated and layered, like how Jake rents apartments near the peripatetic Oswalds once they get to Texas from Russia (he has a Russian wife Marina and a daughter June in case you don't remember). He even makes contact with Marina and briefly with Lee.  The details are amazing. This was the most engrossing part of the book following Jake as he follows Oswald. I couldn't put the book down.  And Jake's life in little Jodie, Texas is practically idyllic and he meets the love of his life, fellow teacher Sadie Dunhill, who like most of the characters in this book, has a past with a lot of darkness in it.

So, does Jake stop the assassination of JFK and if he does, what are the consequences? We get a look at the results and King really lets out his ghoulishness here. Trust me: it's a very different world.

But remember: The past is obdurate.

A gripping, terrifically detailed look at late fifties, early Sixties life, especially Texas. And for us Boomers, very nostalgic. If you are like me, and avoid King mostly because horror is not your thing---this is really the King book to read. It’s outstanding, emotional and the drive to the events in Dealey Plaza in November of 1963 takes your breath away. ~~ Sue Marin

For more titles by Stephen King click here

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