Late in the dead zone, Stephen King's 1979 novel about a man who can see the future, the main character asks, "If you could jump into a time machine and go back to 1932, would you kill Hitler?" It's one of speculative fiction's great hypotheticals. It's also a scenario that King would be poorly equipped to write: over a four-decade career, his comfort zone has always been the culture and vernacular of blue collar, small-town America. So instead of World War II, King has chosen a particularly American obsession--the JFK assassination--for his first foray into time-machine historical fiction.
In King's engrossing new novel, 11/22/63, Jake Epping, a high school English teacher living in present-day Maine, travels back to 1958 via a time tunnel behind a scuzzy diner. His friend, who owns the eatery and has been using the tunnel for quite some time, presents Jake with a mission: if he can prevent Kennedy's murder in Dallas, he might also thwart the violent deaths of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the race riots, the Vietnam War--all the great traumas of the 1960s.
So Jake moves to Texas with the intention of stalking Lee Harvey Oswald. But, as tends to happen in King's books, he forms a deep romance with an angel-like woman, a librarian named Sadie. (King's major flaw--and here it takes the form of tall, ungainly, unlucky Sadie--is his tendency toward sentimentality, something he shares with another great Steve of pop culture: Spielberg.) As Jake settles down in Sadie's small town, this visitor from the future realizes he'd rather become a resident of the past.
Like many King protagonists, Jake and Sadie are deeply drawn yet somehow lack definition. It's a pleasure to spend time with them over hundreds of pages because they are largely uncomplicated and speak directly. But they're also too good, too kind to truly captivate--and we know this because King hammers home their goodness and kindness with passages like "Sadie could be vulnerable, and Sadie could be clumsy, but Sadie could also be very, very brave."
King leaves the spell-casting to Oswald, who doesn't appear until more than halfway through the book. JFK's needy, cowardly, speechifying future assassin--already familiar to us in literary form via Don DeLillo's Libra and Norman Mailer's Oswald's Tale--is given unexpected shadings of frustrated humanity. It's a surprising touch from King, who has never been known for writing subtle bad guys.
Like the author's last several novels (Under the Dome, Duma Key), 11/22/63 succeeds mostly because of its masterly structure and plot. After a leisurely early section in which Jake tests the consequences of time travel (and King weaves in an odd extended cameo by a pair of characters from his 1986 blockbuster It), the story swings back and forth between Jake's life with Sadie and Jake's life with Oswald. Each half of the narrative adds tension to the other, because we know the two must inevitably meet. As Jake hurtles toward his date with Dealey Plaza, he begins to realize that his enemy isn't Oswald. His enemy is time and its great, stubborn unwinding. Nearly 40 years into his career, King has finally found his most relatable villain.