The problem with time travel and the butterfly effect is that most writers don't have enough imagination to see how a slightly different action or conversation can affect the rest of the world. Sure, theorizing how major events might be different is easy, but the day-to-day effects on ordinary people is less so. While there are numerous ways to get around this, it’s rare to see it played straight in a satisfactory manner.
From the onset, 11/22/63 looked like it was going to prove that statistic wrong, and possibly be one of the best Stephen King books in years.
That might not have happened, but it’s still a great book nonetheless. King continues to excel at visualizing ideas that may come off as trite if written by anyone else. 11/22/63 takes a basic escapist fantasy and grounds it into a believable reality. From the very beginning, the evolution of the main character's culture shock from idolized nostalgia trip to disillusionment and isolation is simply captivating.
Some of the oft-mocked Stephen King clichés are present, most notably in the first half of the book. It actually works quite well in context. The nostalgic draw of 11/22/63 isn't just about the 60s or the continued fascination with the JFK assassination—it's about revisiting King's previous works, too. It's also one of the few post-Dark Tower books that really benefits from the shared King universe. A third of the book takes place in Derry, Maine, and in addition to a legitimately suspenseful story, it acts as a sort of bridge between the many books that have taken place there. Seeing an outsider’s perspective on the area adds another level of literary depth to savior-escapism core of the book. Even if you’re not familiar with King’s classics, it builds a satisfying “fish out of water” experience for the main character that resonates throughout the rest of the book.
At the very least, it seems to answer the question “what if I was in an old Stephen King book?” better than “what if I saved Kennedy?”
The other major strength of the book is the depiction of Lee Harvey Oswald and his family. King breathes life into the known facts of one of the most infamous men of the 20th century, and Jake’s sympathetic-yet-distant commentary fills in the blanks where need be. Up until the ending, King keeps the reader on their toes as to whether or not Oswald really was the shooter. The book thankfully doesn’t waste too much of its time questioning the morality of killing someone to save countless others until the question’s absolutely relevant. Much more time is spent asking whether or not sabotaging one’s own life for such a goal is worth the reward, which is a far more interesting question anyway.
Not coincidentally, the love story is adorable, even when it hits heavy topics.
Unfortunately, the book didn't quite deliver as well on its fantastic premise, mainly because King falls into the same trap I described at the beginning of this review. Instead of gradually exploring how Jake's presence warps history cumulatively, huge chunks of the plot feel like it could have happened regardless of the time travel element. The ending tries to make up for this, but it’s too little, too late. It doesn’t help that most of the post-Derry plot is a bit predictable to begin with. A fantastic setup is meaningless without the correct payoff.
It's undeniable that King’s books have a lot to live up to, and to be fair, 11/22/63 is one of his better ventures in the last couple decades. At the same time, it could have been so much more. Some things never change.