oh, be careful what you wish for. • It's a theme Stephen King has explored before, in such novels as Pet Semetary and Needful Things. In his terrific new book, 11/22/63 (on sale Tuesday), he raises the threat level of unintended consequences to world history: What would happen if you could go back in time to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy?
For Jake Epping, the novel's narrator, it all begins with a student essay. Here in 2011, Jake is a 35-year-old English teacher at a high school in Maine, earning extra income teaching adult GED classes. Grading student essays is usually a colossal exercise in tedium, but one brings the usually cool Jake to tears. Its author is a school janitor named Harry Dunning, its subject the Halloween night in 1958 that Harry's father murdered his mother and three siblings and left young Harry crippled.
As shocks to the system go, though, this is only the beginning for Jake. He gets an urgent call from a friend named Al Templeton, who runs a nearby diner with suspiciously low prices. (Locals joke that the "fatburger" might be a "catburger.")
When Jake arrives, he's stunned to see a sign on the door announcing the diner is closed permanently — but even more stunned at the sight of Al. Less than a day has passed since Jake saw him last, but his hair has turned from dark to white and he's lost at least 30 pounds.
The explanation is a mindbender. Al is dying of lung cancer, but that's just the sadly believable part. His condition has deteriorated so rapidly because he's been traveling in time. In 2011, less than a day has passed, but where he's been, half a century in the past, four years have gone by.
Years before, Al tells Jake, he accidentally discovered a portal to the past in the diner's pantry. He has no idea why it's there, but he's been through it enough to learn quite a bit. Step through it and you're in the same Maine town, Lisbon Falls, but it's always the morning of Sept. 9, 1958. No matter how long you stay in the past — days, months, years — when you come back through the portal to the present, only two minutes have passed. But you return in the physical condition you were in back in 1958 or, in Al's case, 1962, and in his case, that condition is critical.
When Al started time traveling, he went for mundane reasons: He buys his ground beef at 1958 prices, which is why his burgers are so cheap, and he sometimes makes bets. Being able to look up on the Internet who won the 1959 Kentucky Derby makes it a snap to win when you go back.
But soon Al is wondering whether he can change the past. First it's just carving his initials on a tree, then it's preventing a hunting accident that left a teenage girl in a wheelchair. When he returns, the past has indeed changed, and as a consequence so has the present, — but every time he crosses the portal again, the past resets. If he re-enters 1958, that girl will be back in her wheelchair unless he saves her all over again.
Knowing he can change things has sent Al on a bigger, final mission: preventing the JFK assassination. He has spent four years in the past gathering information and trying to prove to himself that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. If Oswald was part of a conspiracy or, as he said himself, a patsy, killing him won't help, Al reasons. But if he was a lone gunman, stopping him changes history. Al hopes it will prevent the other assassinations that followed and minimize or avert the Vietnam war.
Why blow Jake's mind with this tale? Al is too sick to finish the task. He wants the younger man, who's healthy, divorced and childless, to take over the mission. Jake, by his own admission, is hardly adventurous. But he's curious enough to visit 1958.
At first King plays his time travel for nostalgic pleasure. Jake savors real root beer and home-delivered milk with cream on top, buys a 1954 Ford Sunliner convertible for $350 and fills it with 19-cent-a-gallon gas. When he needs a handgun and finds he can buy one for $9.99, he's surprised, but then remembers that Oswald bought his fatal rifle for less than $20.
Jake needs that handgun for his own first mission: preventing the slaughter of Harry Dunning's family. It's just the first terrifying episode on the road to Dallas, where, five years later and three days before the title date, Jake thinks, "I took one final glance at the Book Depository over my shoulder. It was looking at me. I had no doubt of that. And of course it was going to end there, I'd been foolish to imagine anything else. I had been driven toward that brick hulk like a cow down a slaughterhouse chute."
The past, Al has told him, resists change, sometimes mightily, and Jake finds it's true: Cars break down, timing goes awry, accidents happen. Changing one thing can alter others in ways he doesn't anticipate. And something even stronger intrudes on his mission: love.
Jake has five years to while away from the time he steps through the portal armed, courtesy of Al, with a fake identity, a fair amount of cash and copious notes about Oswald. He spends much of it in the small town of Jodie, Texas, outside Dallas, first desultorily working on a novel, then teaching at the local high school. He's a gifted teacher who soon grows fond of his students and colleagues.
And, most distracting of all, he meets the love of his life, a long, tall librarian named Sadie Dunhill who dances off with his heart — and creates all kinds of complications about whether to live in the past or the present.
King is, as always, meticulously convincing in his portrayal of American culture. He goes beyond the charmingly nostalgic details of the era to the realistic ones — everybody smokes all the time everywhere — and the ugly ones, like casual racism, sexism and anti-Semitism.
This is King's first novel to focus on a single historical event, and he brings to vivid life such actual characters as the mysterious emigre and possible spy George de Mohrenschildt, hapless FBI Agent James Hosty (Oswald's keeper in the months before the assassination) and Oswald himself. King has clearly immersed himself in the history and conspiracy theory of Kennedy's death, and he cuts through it all to bring to the page an Oswald who is neither a superhuman villain nor a clever conspirator but an uneducated, obsessive kid (he was all of 24) with a grandiose ego and a wife-beating mean streak. Just a loser who wanted to be famous.
In 11/22/63, King has written a splendid combination of dark fantasy, hold-your-breath thriller and sweetly moving romance. And then comes the end of Jake's mission, when he has to return to 2011: "Is there any phrase more ominous than you need to see exactly what you've done?" he asks. King keeps the suspense and surprises rolling until the very last page. Harrowing, heroic and heartbreaking, 11/22/63 is a trip into the past you won't want to miss.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.