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Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Review Of "11/22/63" by Stephen King

I am not much of a fan of Stephen King, and I have read only two of his novels. These two were “The Shining” and “Firestarter.”  I read “The Shining” when it was published back in 1977. I had seen the Stanley Hotel up in Estes Park, and I enjoyed the read. I certainly have never forgotten Kubrick’s movie, nor Jack Nicholson’s performance. I really don’t remember much about “Firestarter,” since I read it over 30 years ago and did not see the movie.

I have tended, over the years, to agree with John Dunning’s comments regarding Stephen King. In his classic bibliomystery, “Booked to Die,” Cliff Janeway is scouting along Denver’s Book Row on East Colfax. An old dealer sells Janeway a first of “The Shining” for $4.00. Janeway tells him he’s not charging enough for the book. The dealer replies: “I don’t believe in Steffan King.” Many years and many King books have come and gone, and I’ve not been tempted to read another. But, a couple of weeks ago I picked up a copy of King’s “11/22/63.” I remembered that I’d seen good reviews when Scribner published it in November 2011, 48 years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

The book is huge – 849 pages, weighing in at almost 4 pounds. I certainly didn’t read through it quickly. I figure that I averaged 20 to 30 pages at a sitting, and so picked it up and set it down many times, getting some real exercise.

The tales told here by King revolve around a fantasy type of time travel (i.e., a Jack Finney way of easing back into the past) – quite different than science fiction tales where there is a “machine” or some deterministic control over time travel. As I was reading early sections of the book I was somewhat reminded of time travel tales from the 1950s. Ray Bradbury’s short story, “A Sound of Thunder” (a dinosaur hunting expedition changes politics back in the future), or Wilson Tucker’s “The Lincoln Hunters” (again with politics at play in time). In fact, after I’d been thinking of the connections, King’s main character refers to “The Lincoln Hunters,” so King may have been a member of the Science Fiction Book Club back in the 1950’s.

I can’t summarize King’s book here, since it is so long and very convoluted. The primary plot revolves around Jake Epping (aka George Amberson), who returns to 1963 to prevent the assassination of JFK. A dying friend, who runs a café, has discovered a tangle in the strings of time that allows him to step back into the past, always into 1958. No matter how long the time traveler remains in the past, when he returns to the present only two minutes have gone by. This is the first quirky aspect of time travel ala Stephen King. Another is that the traveler has physically aged whatever length of time he/she spent in the past. Jake is urged by his friend to step through the time tangle and experience 1958. He does this a number of times, until the dying café owner convinces him that he should remain in the past for 5 years and prevent JFK’s assassination. So, this is the basic thread of the book – Jake Epping, school teacher from 2011, steps back in time to 1958 and stays until 1963, when he will try to prevent the assassination.

Unfortunately, King can’t head straight down the main plotline. He adds a large number of confusing, and at times quite slow, subplots. There’s one about a young woman disabled in a hunting accident, that’s replayed several times. There’s a much longer tale about a dreary, factory town in Maine, where a man goes off the deep-end and murders his entire family. Then there’s a subplot about the mob, bookies, and betting on sporting events whose outcomes Jake already knows (this is how he funds his long stay in the past). There’s a love story, after George meets Sadie, a 1958 high school teacher in a fictional, Texas town south of Dallas. George has gotten a job as a substitute teacher to help both his finances and to pass five years while he waits for the fatal date to arrive. This story is very long and involved and introduces yet  another violent and crazy character. The love story has its own subplots. It appears that King has gathered together a number of short stories and novellas, not previously published, and hammered them into the time travel plot of this book. No wonder it’s so massive.

There is an extended account of George shadowing Lee Harvey Oswald, so that he can learn whether or not Oswald is acting on his or if there is a conspiracy. King has to provide his answer to this question that will never go away. However, getting to an answer takes up several hundreds of pages that are not very interesting, and this part of the tale drags along. The final hundred or so pages are the best part of this novel, as events, characters, the Kennedy motorcade, and time converge on Dealey Plaza. It’s an interesting climax, but the effort required of the reader to get here is substantial.

And then there’s the final and fatal quirk of King’s version of time travel. The time string of 1958 “resets” to exactly how it was the previous time the traveler had stepped into 1958. This is a real “What the hell?” aspect of the novel. It allows Jake to go back again and again to redo things in the past, if he doesn’t like how 2011 turned out due to his fiddling in his previous trip. This aspect of King’s story deflates the tensions and suspense associated with more classic, time travel, science fiction stories. Recommended only to folks who have a lot of time on their hands.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Quick Trip To San Diego

We took a short trip over to San Diego at the end of last week. The trip was partly to use a Southwest Rapid rewards ticket before we lost it, and partly to escape the heat for about 36 hours. San Diego is usually cool in the summer, if you stay close to the ocean. The Balboa Park complex provides more interesting museums than one could visit in a single trip. It's a great place. Above is the Marston House, a Prairie Style mansion built in 1905. It sits at the north end of Balboa Park, with tours every half hour. An interesting place with beautiful wood work and several original libraries still in place. It's owners played an important role in the development of Balboa Park. We spent Friday wandering around the park and then caught an evening flight home.

Our first afternoon (Thursday, August 2nd) we headed up to Adams Avenue to visit book stores. Adams Avenue used to be called Book Row because of all the store fronts along the street. Alas, no more. There are only three book stores left. Adams Avenue Book Store (above and below) is one of the survivors, and has been there since 1965. It's a nice store with both general used and collectible books housed on two floors and in many rooms. It also is home to two resident, mostly inert and snoozing, bookstore cats. The person working at the counter told us that rapidly rising rents in this part of San Diego had chased out almost all the booksellers. This store is definitely worth a visit, if you're in San Diego. Their web page is http://www.adamsavebooks.com/

On our last visit (has been 9 years ago), we browsed in at least five stores and were enchanted by The Prince and the Pauper - Collectible Children's Books. It appears that they are still in business, with a store front out in an eastern suburb now. The other stores still open on Adams Avenue are: The Scarlet Letter, which is small and which has irregular hours - they weren't open on Thursday afternoon - and The Book Tree which specializes in metaphysical, spiritual, and controversial books.

I wasn't able to resist several books. Above is a nice UK first of Edward Abbey's 4rth novel - Black Sun - published in the UK as Sunset Canyon. Below is one of two mysteries that Cornell Woolrich wrote as "George Hopley." I am slowly building a run of Woolrich's (also aka William Irish) books.

Finally, I picked up Dykes "Western High Spots" which is an important and very useful reference for western writing and also western illustrators. This is the 1977 edition published by Northland Press. Although the copy has underlining and some notes (which of course doesn't particularly hurt a reference book), it has been signed and inscribed by Dykes. All-in-all, a nice outing.