I am not always fond of Stephen King’s novels, particularly those that are more typically horror stories, but the theme of time travel and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy were intriguing to me and I decided, as long as the book is (800+ pages), it was worth my attempting to read it. Although it took some time to read it, by the time I approached the ending, I was happy I had.
The main character, Jake Epping, a high school English teacher, becomes a reluctant time traveler when a friend and proprietor of a local diner that he frequents, reveals the fact that there is a portal to the past in the storage room of his diner, which he has been accessing for many years as a way of buying meat that allows him to charge unbelievably low prices for his hamburgers in the diner in the present. Jake is given the opportunity to try out the portal, which always returns a person to the year 1958, but returns the person only two minutes into the present regardless of how many “years” he spends in the past. The diner owner, Al, has discovered, as well, that the past can be changed, but that there is an apparent “reset” that causes the changes to no longer be in effect unless the person who returns to the past then changes it again. When Jake is convinced (as is the reader) that Al is not crazy and that this portal exists, he takes an exploratory journey into 1958, discovers the reality of time travel, and returns to discuss with Al his purpose for recruiting Jake into this world. Al is obsessed with changing the events of November 22, 1963, i.e., the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He is convinced if Kennedy is not assassinated, the resulting other changes will be positive and and the world will overall be a better place. Because he develops terminal lung cancer, he has decided to recruit the reluctant Jake to accomplish his goal by assassinating Lee Harvey Oswald.
Because he is skeptical about cause and effect, Jake first does a “dry run,” in which he hopes to kill the father of a night time student he has who has described in an emotional essay the horrors of his father’s murdering his entire family and causing him to develop a crippling leg injury. In the long attempt to set up this change in history, Jake learns numerous things about the path of doing so, including the fact that time is almost a living entity that does not want to be changed, and as a result Jake is confronted with numerous attacks on himself to prevent his doing so. He also notes a certain harmony in time and place and people, and the obvious “butterfly effect” that will result in other changes. When he returns, after a harrowing event in which he basically accomplishes his goal, he discovers that the present is changed, but not necessarily in the way he had anticipated. Because this seemed to work out, however, he has begun to believe that he can effect a momentous change by killing Lee Harvey Oswald and when he returns to discuss this with Al, discovers Al has committed suicide because of the cancer, and because the portal will be demolished when Al’s diner is demolished, which had been previously scheduled, Jake takes Al’s notebook that includes his research of Oswald, as well as other information that will help Jake maintain a life while in the past.
Because I grew up in the era described in the book and because I also lived in New England (as is often usual, King’s book takes place in Maine) and because I was a senior in high school when President Kennedy was assassinated, I was drawn into the past that King describes. It was amusing to be reminded of the simple things like Moxie, as well as the lack of technology that inhibits Jake, but also how people related to one another then with less fear and fewer assumptions and were more willing to just accept things as they are, whether that was good or not being left up to the reader. Things Jake could do then could not be done in the present and he was frequently reminded of this.
When he returns to 1958 to prepare to eliminate Lee Harvey Oswald from his chance to assassinate Kennedy, we follow Jake in a number of choices, good and bad, that lead him to the final scenes in the book. Because he is there for such a long time (1958 through 1963), we see him develop friendships, a loving relationship, and conflicts within himself, all of which are based in part on secrets because he can’t reveal who he really is (he goes by George) nor his reason for being where he is at that time in history. Jake had refrained from killing him at other times when he had actually had the opportunity, before he was beaten, because in his monitoring Oswald when he returned to the States from Russia, he has discovered another plot Oswald was involved in and he had intended to shoot him then, but that was subverted by his needing to care for his love, Sadie, who was herself a victim of a horrific attack by her ex-husband.She in turn nurses him back to health when,because of circumstances that cause him to be badly beaten and in the hospital, he loses some of his memory. He slowly regains his memory in time to race to the Texas School Book Depository just before Oswald is about to shoot President Kennedy. In the course of their relationship, he had revealed his true identity and purpose for being there to Sadie, who goes with him to help. Through a complicated series of events that last seconds, Sadie is killed by a bullet from Oswald meant for Jake (George), and Oswald is unable to assassinate the President, as the Secret Service and police fire on him through the window and kill him.
As a result of Sadie’s being killed, Jake decides to return to 2011 and then return to 1958 to reset everything and try again, without Sadie’s dying. It is at this point in the novel when we learn the significance of the “Yellow Card Man,” encountered with each entry into the portal, although this Yellow Card Man is a Green Card Man at this time Jake is exiting, and he describes the portals and what is to become of them to Jake and the reader. He further describes the fact that although it appears time resets with each re-entry, in actuality, each “reset” is a different time thread (I kept thinking of “string theory”) and the more strings created, the more unstable time becomes. When Jake returns to 2011, he discovers that his changing history in fact did drastically change the present and what he finds is disconcerting and depressing and frightening. But when he returns to 1958, which puts everything back onto another “thread,” at that point he knows he needs to return to 2011 without changing anything. Returning to the present, he discovers everything is pretty much restored and that Sadie, whose death he had hoped to prevent, survived the horrific attack by her ex-husband without his interference, and that she is still alive, albeit elderly, in 2011. There is a touching last scene in the book that apparently, according to his official website, King hadn’t intended, but was suggested by his author son, Joe Hill.
This was a difficult review to write because I didn’t want to reveal too much, but at the same time, the entire plot and the characters are so complicated and woven together that without referring to one thing meant I’m probably leaving the reader somewhat confused. This is also, I’m sure, why the novel is so long, because so much is interwoven with each segment and so much needed to be explained. I never felt the length of the novel interfered with the enjoyment of it, however. His characters are true to life and react as real people would in both normal and abnormal situations. There were a few times when it was necessary to dispense with belief on my part only because time travel (as far as we know) is not possible, but King is a masterful storyteller and easily convinces his readers to believe what he is writing. I was sorry when the story ended and could have read another 800+ pages!!