'11/22/63': from grassy knoll to gassy nothing

Reviewers and readers have been raving about Stephen King's latest. Our critic dissents.

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The assassination of President Kennedy has engendered more than 1,000 books since he was killed Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas. In that stack, only one novel truly matters -- Don DeLillo's "Libra."

Taut, spooky and still timely 23 years after it was published, "Libra" is everything Stephen King's "11/22/63" is not.

This is a fat, sloppy derivative hunk of a book, quintessential King, if you like. Many readers love his stuff unreservedly, as the best-seller list and his long string of successes prove, so it makes a reviewer wonder if an examination of his latest can make any impression.

But it's my job. Plus, if you think I'm going to waste all those hours of my life I'll never get back by reading "11/22/63," you're mistaken.

Mr. King said that he's been trying to write about the Kennedy assassination since 1972 but "the research it would involve seemed far too daunting for a man who was teaching full-time."

Freed from those reservations (he now has the money to pay someone to do the research), the novelist has taken the plunge into the JFK labyrinth of shadows and mystery and emerged with a conventional story about something else entirely.

By Stephen King
Scribner ($35).

Sure, the impetus for the plot of "11/22/63" was the assassination, yet it becomes only the pretext for Mr. King to indulge himself in the quaintness of America circa 1958, including root beer. "Things tasted better back then," remarks a character. (I guessed he would say that.)

The novel is indeed a tragedy, but it's the tragic love story of a man of the present with a woman of the past rather than about the killing of the president.

"11/22/63" is the hoariest of literary cliches -- time travel. Mr. King spends little time or imagination on his time machine. It's just the closet of a closed diner in Maine where schoolteacher Jake Epping steps from today into 1958 with the job of saving Kennedy five years later in Dallas.

He falls in love with Sadie, a librarian with a troubled past and with whom he shares his secret as the days move steadily to Nov. 22, 1963, and his rendezvous with Lee Oswald.

Cue the research:

Epping lives in a Dallas duplex with the Oswalds, meets Marina, Oswald's Russian wife, and Marguerite, his troublesome mother as well as George de Mohrenschildt, Oswald's odd "friend," and Ruth Paine, the sympathetic American who sheltered Marina.

Mr. King's treatment of the accused assassin is unsatisfying. Epping rarely encounters him directly. Mostly he uses a listening device in the Oswald home or watches from afar, so we don't get a fuller picture of this pivotal character.

Mr. DeLillo's Oswald, on the other hand, is a complex creation.

Mr. King's real focus, though, is the love life of Epping, highlighted by the arrival of Sadie's psychopathic ex-husband, who proves to be a more detailed character than Oswald. In truth, the author devotes many of his 841-plus pages to Epping's daily life in the past.

As a writer, Mr. King is like one of those water-main breaks Pittsburgh is plagued with; once he starts, the words cascade without pause until he decides to turn the shutoff valve. It's a substantial talent, an art, maybe, this ability to overwrite even the most insignificant moment down to the tiniest detail.

When it works, the effect produces an image of ordinary life so realistic that it might be a photograph. When it doesn't, Mr. King's accumulation of details floods the imagination like a gasoline-choked carburetor on an old car, one of his favorite old-timey things.

Mr. King does all the imagining for us; we just watch like spectators.

No time-travel novel is complete without the consequences for the present of changing the past, fertile ground for the imaginative Mr. King to go to town on constructing an alternative America. Yet, the scenario feels uninspired, more like an obligation of the genre rather than a fresh concept.

"11/22/63" is a fully equipped new model from the King factory written in his basic declarative sentences, mildly crude jokes, jammed with expected cultural references with some bloody gratuitous violence and brief suspense.

To get specific would only spoil the novel's various twists and turns. The fact remains that an eternal flame still burns in Arlington National Cemetery.

Bob Hoover: pittbookeditor@hotmail.com First Published December 18, 2011 5:00 AM


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