This is the first novel by Stephen King book I’ve read. I’ve never been interested in his work because I consciously avoid the horror genre, in both its literary and film incarnations. However, I picked up the audiobook version of this work because I liked what I'd heard about the plot.
The novel is about 35 year old Jake Epping, a high school English teacher living in Lisbon Falls, Maine. It’s 2011, Jake is newly divorced from his alcoholic wife and he allows himself to be talked into travelling to the past to prevent the assassination of President John F Kennedy. For reasons I won’t go into, this means that Jake has to hang around in the past from 1958 until 1963, soaking up the sights, sounds and second-hand cigarette smoke of late 1950s and early 1960s small town America. While waiting for his opportunity to change history, Jake gets to notice how good 1958 root beer tastes, how cool 1950s cars are to drive and how much cheaper stuff is in 1958 compared to 2011. He also gets to murder someone in cold blood, fall in love, teach English, direct high school drama productions, spy on Lee Harvey Oswald and make frequent observations about how the past resists being changed (in Jake-speak the past is “obdurate”) and how it contains all kinds of weird coincidences (in Jake-speak, the past “harmonizes”).
This is a very long book, so Jake’s love life, his teaching career and his observations mean that many hours of reading (or in my case listening) go by without much actually happening. Or at least, things happen, but they’re often the same things happening over and over again, the past thereby showing its obduracy and its tendency to harmonize. This in turn means that by the time I got to the business end of November 1963 I didn’t actually care very much what happened to JFK, to Jake or to anyone else for that matter. Moreover, while I didn’t predict everything that was going to happen, it wasn’t that difficult to work out that changing history was unlikely to be a Good Idea*.
I know this review sounds like I didn’t like the novel. It’s true that there are things I don’t like about it. Even though I generally love long novels – for example, I adore every melodramatic, overwrought moment of [b:The Count of Monte Cristo|7126|The Count of Monte Cristo|Alexandre Dumas|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1309203605s/7126.jpg|391568] – this one is too long and too repetitive. In addition, I struggled to find Jake credible, particularly when he seems to adapt to having committed a murder in cold blood with the same ease he adapts to driving a column-shift car and inhaling second-hand smoke. And Jake hardly ever notices the rampant racism and sexism of the period, which makes him not only lacking in credibility but just plain annoying.
On the other hand, the narrative kept my attention and there were a few genuinely suspenseful moments. And while I don’t feel nostalgic for 1950s small-town USA, I mostly liked King’s evocation of time and place even if it tended towards the anodyne. I also enjoyed what are the most clichéd and sentimental parts of the novel – the high school production of “Of Mice and Men” and the dancing – not from a literary point of view, but because I love student theatre and watching people dance.
I don’t regret the 30 hours I spent listening to this book. Mostly I enjoyed it, even if I’m glad I had useful things to do at the same time such as driving to work or going for a walk. The narration is good: not brilliant, but more than competent. The prose is good: again, not brilliant, but far from dreadful. The premise is interesting, notwithstanding the predictability of the outcome. I know lots of people love this novel, but I spent too much time rolling my eyes to give it anything more than a barely-scraping-in three stars.
*The fact that Jake didn’t know that before throwing himself through the time portal took me out of the story a bit. Surely, I thought to myself at various times, someone who’s 35 years old in 2011 would know about the dangers of changing the past from watching “Back to the Future” and/or a few episodes of “Doctor Who”.