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 Salem’s 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|
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.