22 November 2011

November Twenty Second

 By Dale C. Andrews




    Sometimes I have to think long and hard to come up with a theme for Tuesdays.  Not so today.  Today is November 22nd.  That alone should be enough, but this year Stephen King has weighed in to make the task even easier.

    I would hazard a guess that anyone much over 50 – and some quite a bit younger – brood their way through this day each year.   We remember where we were when we heard.  We ruminate over “what if” scenarios.  Today is a day haunted by the memories of grainy black and white photos, horrors on the front pages of newspapers.  It’s a day to puzzle over how things could have gone that terribly wrong.

     Certainly, if you are of an age, it’s a day when you remember where you were back in 1963, what you were doing when Walter Cronkite, in shirt sleeves, announced to a stunned nation what had happened in Dallas.  There are other days like this – 9/11 is one – when a watershed was crossed, when the world tilted a little on its axis and then never again spun quite the same.  Those days, thankfully, are few.  But that is one of the reasons that we brood each year when they roll around.

     On the rock of our obsession with this date Stephen King has built his new novel, 11/22/63.  A very different writer, Laura Ingalls Wilder, once wrote that there is never a great loss without a little gain, and that is true here.  Out of this day, which shall always be dark, we have gained a fine novel from Stephen King, a novel that explores the “what ifs” that have haunted us for the past 48 years.

    Let’s take a deep breath and, at least for a while, step back from today’s date and focus for a while more generally on the amazing Mr. King.  By my count, since breaking into the publishing world in 1974 with Carrie, Stephen King has published 61 books – mostly novels, but also short story collections and nonfiction volumes. 

     The first Stephen King book for me was The Shining.  I bought it back in 1978 after hearing the paperback edition advertised on the radio.  I read about 100 pages the first night, and then found myself completely unable to concentrate at  work the next day because all I could think about was the story.  That night I stayed up until the small hours of the morning and finished the book.  I had to do this in order to get my life back – that is how intense the story was for me. 

    Since that day in 1978 I have read everything that Stephen King has written.  Yep, every one of those 61 books.  But while I am a stalwart Stephen King fan I am also an inveterate critic.  Like many readers, and probably like most teachers, I tend to grade books as I read them.  To my mind King has offered up some solid “A’s”, including The Shining, The Stand (particularly the longer uncut version published in 1990), It and the Gunslinger series.  My entirely subjective grading system also awards some “A-‘s,” including, among others, Firestarter, Pet Sematary, Carrie, and Salems Lot.  But recent works by King, aside from the later Gunslinger volumes, I generally relegate to no better than the “B” range, and there are some that for me fall below that line.  Tommyknockers, gets a C-, as does Insomnia and Cell

The Colorado Kid (sorry about that, Stephen) is lucky to get a D.   I mean, really – a “fair play” mystery plot where the crime is never solved?  In an afterword to The Colorado Kid, King wrote that people will either love the ending or hate it. "I think for many people, there'll be no middle ground on this one . . . .”  Well, that’s right – there wasn’t one for me!

    Others may compile the grade list differently, but from my perspective (since, after all, it is my list) one of the obvious conclusions is that, with the exception of the later Gunslinger volumes, King’s best books, at least my personal favorites, are generally found among his earlier works.  I am not the only one who has speculated that in recent years King may have been just a bit burned out. Ttake a look, for example, at the parody of King that was on Family Guy a few years back.   Perhaps this is because King used his best ideas, the ones that really grabbed him, early on, and then just ran out of really great ones.  When this happens to many of us who are, or who aspire to be, writers we experience writers’ block.  We produce nothing.  Not so, with King, however.  By all observation the man is the energizer bunny of authors.  He keeps going, and going, and going.  When his publisher ordered him to slow down, telling him that he could not continue to write at the pace of more than one book per year, King famously invented Richard Bachman and used that alter ego to drop another seven books into the book stores.  But while the work ethic is admirable, the process has, as discussed above, produced some lesser gems.

    The purpose of the foregoing digression?  Well, I guess it's two-fold.  First, not every Stephen King book is great.  And second, I hand out "A's" pretty sparingly.  12/22/63, however, gets a solid "A."

     So now lets return to today, November 22, and to King’s latest novel.  I have not finished 11/22/63 as of this writing.  This is because I am savoring it, parceling it out in measured doses, like Christmas candies.  All criticism is subjective, but to my mind 11/22/63 is the kind of King novel that we have not seen in years.  There is nothing "phoned in" here, nor is the story a forced effort by King to write "a Stephen King book."   In fact, there is very little that is supernatural about this story.  11/22/63 reads almost like it wrote itself, its premise is a stampede, and King, like the rest of us, is bouncing along trying to do whatever he can to control those horses.   Such mad rides are the best rides.

    And why is this?  Why does this book work so well?  I suspect that it is because once King came up with the premise of 11/22/63 it was a story that he had to tell.  What a difference it makes when the force driving the narrative is one that has completely grabbed the author's imagination.  When that happens writing will not be forced, it will flow on its own.  King's premise of a protagonist presented with an opportunity to go back in time, to live from 1958 through 1963 and to then attempt to right the horrific wrong of November 22 obviously resonated for the author in a way that other story ideas just did not.  King works hard in  his novels to make the characters live and breathe, but the result can  sometimes come  across as a bit forced.  Not so with those who populate 11/22/63.  They invariably ring true, and I suspect that this is so simply because, the story itself must have become so  real to King as he wrote it that character development flowed naturally.  I suspect Stephen King was as carried away writing this book as his readers will be reading it. 

The back cover of 11/22/63
    In his column last Friday my colleague Dixon Hill wrote an incisive and poignant article on happy endings.  And as Dixon concluded, happy endings generally are not Stephen King’s forte.  I have already noted that I have yet to finish  11/22/63, so I do not know how happy or unhappy the ending ultimately will prove to be.  And, of course, even if I did know the nature of that ending I would not share it here – no spoilers from me! 

     But it is not a spoiler to reproduce the back cover of the novel.  And from that back cover one must conclude that, at least as to November 22, 1963, Stephen King, like the rest of us, has spent a good deal of time thinking about the possibility of a happier ending.

     The possibility of putting a better end to November 22,  a day that left us all older though not necessarily wiser, was in any event the apparent spark that inspired a great read from Mr. King. Hearkening back to Laura Ingalls Wilder's advice, we might as well be thankful for that small gain, even though it has sprung from our greater loss.

10 comments:

Fran Rizer said...

Dale, I awoke this morning immediately aware of the date and its significance. I could relate this to the fact that I, too, am reading King's new book, but the truth is this date always has an impact on me. Thanks for a great article,and I'm glad you didn't disclose King's ending. I agree somewhat with your grading except that It was a wonderful book to me until the ending, which I found disappointing. I'd also give Dolores's story an A, but that may be because it's a woman's story. Thanks again.

Leigh Lundin said...

I too have wondered about those points in time when a sharp turn forever changed history… in our timeline.

Dale, didn't you and I discuss those crazy anti-conspiracy theorists?

John Floyd said...

Dale, I too have read every single one of King's books so far, and I agree that some are better than others. I'm about 200 pages into 11/22/63 at this point, and I also agree that this one looks to be one of his best. I also noticed that some of the characters in the novel IT have been featured in the new book! Feels like a homecoming.

Thanks for a great column!

Dale Andrews said...

Fran -- I liked Dolores Clairborne very much also. I have a theory about King, and one that I have never seen discussed elsewhere. I think that aside from Carrie he had a great deal of trouble making his women characters as believable as his men. And I think that may have led him to the series of books, of which Dolores is one, in which women are the central characters. To support this theory I would point to the original version of The Stand versus the 1990 "uncut" version. King has said that a lot of the uncut version was in fact added by him later. If you read the uncut version as I did, with the original version open beside it for reference, you will find that an amazing amount of the new material is character development of Fran. What he did with that character is one of the reasons I think the uncut version is so superior.

And as to endings, well I sort of don't expect great endings from King -- I didn't particularly like the ending of The Stand, and I sure thought there were some flaws in It, but they still get my "A"!

Leigh -- Yep. We did the conspiracy chat over drinks. A woman I used to practice law with was convinced that the CIA injected Jack Ruby with cancer cells to shut him up. I mean, get real -- why would you try to "shut up" someone by guaranteeing a long and lingering death!

Dale Andrews said...

Well, appropriately I finished 11/22/63 today. Still no spoilers here. But I disagree with Fran on the ending. Congratulations, Mr. King. An "A+"

Fran Rizer said...

Dale, you misinterpreted my coment that It was a wonderful book until the ending. I actually meant the novel named IT. I haven't finished the new one yet. Been out and about with my grandson all day.

Dale Andrews said...

Fran -- Oops! I missed the capital "I" in it and took it for a pronoun referring to the latest book! We are of a mind. I really liked It also but found aspects of the ending sort of fatally flawed. Particularly that stuff with Bev. But enough. I don't do spoilers! -- Dale

Twila Black said...

Dale, I enjoyed reading your column. It makes me want to go out and purchase Mr. King's new book. Maybe Santa will bring it to me!

Robert Lopresti said...

I remember the date, believe me. I'm not a great fan of King, although I loved On Writing. I actually sold a story about those points in history that just won't change. You can read it on the web at http://www.towndrunkmag.com/2006/lopresti_letters.aspx

Cathy Tolliver said...

Dale, I enjoyed your article. I, too, have spent the day thinking back to my 4th grade classroom with Mrs. Pepmeier sitting down with tears streaming down her face after our principal, Mr. Singleton, announced that President Kennedy had been shot.....