The only Stephen King book I ever read before 11/22/63 was The Shining--being a Colorado native and a fan of the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, how could I not read it? I'm not interested in horror as a genre, and I tend to avoid pop-culture icons like King as a matter of course. However, I love time travel stories and I have been interested in JFK my entire life. One of my first memories is of my mom crying on the phone after she heard about his assassination when I was five years old. Given all of this, I decided to read King's 11/22/63.
I absolutely loved it and shelved all other reading so that I could simply forge my way through all 849 pages at breakneck speed.
Quickie synopsis - Jake Epping is a schoolteacher who eats at a local greasy spoon that is notorious for its low prices. The proprietor of the diner is dying of cancer and shares a secret with Jake--there is a portal to the past, Sept 1958 to be exact, in his diner and he has been routinely visiting the past to buy supplies for his diner, hence the low, low prices he can charge for meals. He also has started playing around with the past, and has been working on a project to try to stop the assassination of JFK. However, since the cancer is killing him, he enlists Jake to take over the project. Jake agrees and travels to September 1958 and puts together a plan to stop Oswald before he can kill the president. Along the way, he finds a life that he prefers to the one he left behind in 2011.
I found the story absolutely gripping and Jake an entirely believable character. As one who has thought long and hard about how I would deal with time travel should I ever find my own rabbit hole, I loved reading about Jake's reactions to the world of the 1950's/60's.
I came to really respect King's skills as a writer and storyteller, particularly his ability to create a shadowy, malevolent character, really the villain of the story, out of the past. As Epping lives out the five years he has to mark in the past before he can strike Oswald down, he learns that the "past is obdurate"--it does not want to be changed and will fight to not be changed. It plays dirty and throws accidents at Jake left and right to try to prevent him from accomplishing his mission. This is such a cool idea, and shows King to be a master of the pyschological thriller. Most writers settle for creating tangible villains, but King has created a completely conceptual villain, which is brilliant because this is a villain that cannot be beaten even when you think you have done so.
I also thought that King's pacing was excellent--unlike some thrillers that never give you time to breathe, this one provided periods of relative calm in which Epping could explore and enjoy the world in which he landed--he could dance, go out to dinner, make friends, fall in love, and basically live--before the next crisis overwhelmed the normalcy. I think that's the hallmark of a great thriller, unexpected thunderbolts are so much more unnerving than ones that come from stormy skies.
A completely enjoyable read and one that was refreshingly different from most of the books I tend to read. Viva la difference!