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Review: Fiction: 11.22.63 by Stephen King


The last smile:
JFK and his wife
Jackie in
Dallas, Texas,
before he was

The last smile: JFK and his wife Jackie in Dallas, Texas, moments before he was assassinated

The last smile: JFK and his wife Jackie in Dallas, Texas, moments before he was assassinated

He was arguably the most iconic politician of the 20th Century. And while his reputation may not be quite as glittering as it once was, there is still something magical about John F Kennedy.

A man of many contradictions and, as we have discovered, sexual peccadillos, he was more than just a president to most Americans -- he was the idealised representation of what they wanted themselves, and their country, to be.

He was young, he was progressive, he was seen as being liberal and supported the civil rights movement (although he never impressed Martin Luther King) and, crucially, he was seen to be the man prepared to stare down the Evil Empire at the height of the Cold War.

In short, for many Americans, he was America.

So the date of November 22, 1963, is one that is emblazoned on people's minds. To borrow from another American president, it is a date that will live in infamy.

Lee Harvey Oswald's assassination of Kennedy that day in Dallas almost broke America, causing paranoia and a national crisis of confidence that some social historians claim was never fully regained. So it is only fitting that America's most iconic author should turn his considerable attention to America's most iconic president.

Stephen King is not just iconic, he is also one of the most prolific authors in the English language -- and is unquestionably one of the best. Over the course of more than three decades, King has been a prodigious producer of novels, short stories and screenplays -- most of them gripping, some disappointing and many that are astonishingly brilliant.

The Dark Tower series, for example, which took seven books and more than 25 years to complete, is a literary masterpiece.

Sure, snobs like Harold Bloom may look down on something as vulgar and common as a masterful fusion of sci-fi and horror, as The Dark Tower is, but they would never be able replicate such an achievement.

In fact, the irony of all those who are quick to dismiss him as a purveyor of schlocky horror stories lies in the fact that King himself is a former English teacher and a remarkably serious thinker. One only has to read his non-fiction release from 2000, On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft, to see just how erudite he is.

But if there is one recurring criticism of King's work it's that he chronically overwrites. That's not a problem when the overly long novel is as gripping as, say, The Stand, but some of his minor works have certainly fallen into that category.

And falling somewhere in the middle sits his latest, 11.22.63. a weighty tome that runs to nearly 800 pages.

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King has always seemed fascinated by the Americana of the 1950s, a time and place he visits frequently in his work. Here he returns once again with the story of High School teacher Jake Epping who makes an astonishing discovery -- the storeroom in his dilapidated local diner is also a portal back to 1958.

He's a lonely divorcee with few ties to his community.

One of the few friends he has is the diner's owner who is terminally ill; he has a proposition for his younger friend -- would he be prepared to travel back in time and prevent the assassination of JFK?

The dead president still holds a grip on America's imagination and King is no different; after all, he is a baby boomer himself and has written about the assassination before.

But, King being King, nothing is ever as a simple as it first appears -- not that a time travelling portal in the back of a greasy spoon diner is particularly simple.

King has also written about time travel and shifting dimensions before so this will come as no surprise to Constant Reader (the nickname he has for devoted fans).

The author will probably argue that the book is as long as it is because he wanted to properly evoke the era, and there is no denying there are times where you feel like you could be in 1958.

But frankly, there is too much evocation and not enough action.

Jake begins a new life in the 1950s with the name George Amberson and notices just how much America has changed in 50 years.

As he gently ambles on his new life in Texas, the reader is tempted to shout . . . just get on with it.

After all 'what-if' fiction has produced some cracking reads in recent years and the idea of an America where Kennedy is never shot is a fascinating one. What will happen to the Civil Rights movement? The Vietnam War? The Cold War?

We eventually get to the good stuff, but by that stage it seems almost perfunctory and the wrap-up is too quick and premature.

An entertaining read, undeniably, but those of us who devour King's books will feel that it could have done with some judicious editing and got to the point a lot quicker.

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