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Stephen King revamps time travel genre

One would think the time travel genre would have lost its appeal long ago due to lack of originality, but Stephen King isn’t known for his conventional writing. His latest book “11/22/63” takes the subject, which has been beaten to death in movies as well as literature, and makes it central to the plot line.

In “11/22/63” high school English teacher Jake Epping travels back in time to Sept. 9, 1958 at 11:58 a.m. His goal is to spend five years living in America until Nov. 22, 1963 when he will attempt to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy.

There are rules, of course. First, Jake must enter the past through a “rabbit hole” in the pantry of his friend Al Templeton’s diner. Every time he goes through it, he comes out at 11:58 a.m. on Sept. 9, 1958 in a forgotten corner of a textile mill. Every trip to the past is a reset, or so Al thinks. Jake isn’t so sure. “11/22/63” runs along the general lines of a time travel novel: man discovers rip in time, man visits past, man changes past, man returns to present, man finds present isn’t as he left it and man regrets his grandiose scheming.

King tried to make up for this predictability by writing 864 pages. His books are generally well-written, and “11/22/63” is no exception, but the blunt truth is the book could have been shorter, and would have been better off for it. There was little need to write blow by blow filler about Jake’s travels before he settled down in Texas, his endless hunt for a place to stay, or his dealings with bookies, nor to include an extended two-chapter encore performance of his stay in Derry, Maine. It is a far cry from the 181-page “Carrie,” King’s first published book. In his success as a writer, King seems to have forgotten how brevity can be just as important to a book as characters or plot.

In any case, the amount of research necessary to write this book must have been extensive. King had to extensively research the life of Lee Harvey Oswald so Jake could turn into the stalker of the century. However, the more difficult research would have been the social and cultural aspects of daily life in America 50 years ago. Few people write down what slang means and the proper time and place to use it because they think it will always be around, but King’s depiction brings the eye popping differences of speech, dress and behavior crashing into the 21st century. It is admirable that King not only did his homework and did it well, but that he also wrote it seamlessly into the very long story.

Then there is the inevitable love interest. From the moment the reader picks up the book and learns the main character is a single male, they know a female will waltz into the picture eventually. Her name is Sadie Dunhill, and she falls in love with George Ambrose, Jake Epping’s false identity. At least she isn’t bubbly and empty-headed. There’s a period of separation when Jake’s obsession with Oswald preoccupies him and causes Sadie to become suspicious.

Though King has unfortunately fallen into the pitfall of writing too much because of his success, he works masterfully with his copious material. The characters are dynamic and the reader comes to love and care about them. The future is scary when the past has been changed, as the reader knew it would be, but hopefully the excessively long falling action and ending of “11/22/63” will put to bed for a while the weary time travel genre – unless of course someone changes the past.