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by William H. Benson

December 1, 2011

     Stephen King is not one of my favorite authors, not even close. I have yet to finish anything he has written, mainly because he restricts himself to two genres that fail to satisfy me—horror and science-fiction. And yet I bought his new book, 11/22/1963, after reading a positive review in The New York Times Book Review. It is a work of fiction, but historical, with a pleasant-feeling romance, and a measure of science-fiction mixed in. A promising setup, even exciting.

     The book’s main character, Jake Epping, is divorced and teaching English composition in a small school in Maine, when Al, the proprietor of the local diner, explains privately to Jake that there is a spot in the back of his diner where, if he walks into that spot, he can travel back to a single point in time, “11:58 A.M. On the morning of September ninth, 1958. Every trip is the first trip.” Whenever Al returns from this hole into the past, for however long, he has only been gone two minutes.

     Because Al is dying of lung cancer from too many cigarettes, he asks Jake to go back to 1958, stay there for five years, and stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating President Kennedy. “You can change history, Jake,” Al tells him. “Do you understand that? John Kennedy can live.”

     Jake agrees, gets himself to Dallas, locates Lee and Marina Oswald, rents the room underneath the Oswald’s room at 214 West Neely Street in Dallas, spies on them, falls in love with a Texas beauty named Sadie Dunhill, and struggles with all his might to stop Oswald. There is the setup.

     In 11/22/1963 Stephen King splices together two shop-worn subjects: time travel and Kennedy’s assassination. Time travel, as a literary topic, began with H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. It was advanced, according to King in his “Afterword,” by Jack Finney in his wonderful story Time and Again. For a good story, Hollywood loves time travel, either back or forward. Consider Frank Kapra’s It’s A Wonderful Life or Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait.

     Kennedy’s assassination is a nest of ideas that can be neatly divided into two: those who subscribe to the conspiracy theory and those who point only to Lee Harvey Oswald. A host of books will describe in vivid detail the trajectory of the third bullet, the shooter on the grassy knoll, and that the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, the Soviet Union, or Fidel Castro were working in conjunction with Oswald.

     One would tend to believe that after considering what Oswald did in his twenty-four years: he joined the Marines, but then defected to Russia; married Marina Prusakova, a Russian girl with whom he had two daughters; returned to  the U.S., but took a bus to Mexico City where he appealed for a visa to Cuba; and handed out pro-Marxist pamphlets on New Orleans’s streets, urging Fair Play for Cuba.  

     Then, there is The Warren Commission Report—all twenty-six volumes of it, William Manchester’s Death of a President, Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, and Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale, and each concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. They consider it coincidental that on October 20, 1963 he found the job at Dallas’ Texas Book Depository, which just happened to be on the route of Kennedy’s motorcade, and that he had purchased the previous March by mail-order a Carcano rifle.

     Norman Mailer began his book convinced that there was a conspiracy, but after thoroughly examining the evidence, he wisely concluded that Oswald acted alone. Mailer said, “It is virtually not assimilable to our reason that a small lonely man felled a giant in the midst of his limousines, his legions, his throng, and his security.” Yet he did, and Stephen King agrees.

     “It is very, very difficult,” he wrote, “for a reasonable person to believe otherwise. Occam’s Razor—the simplest explanation is usually the right one.” The assassination is “the same simple American story: here was a dangerous little fame-junkie who found himself in just the right place to get lucky.”

     Simple it may be, but complexity is what the human mind craves and automatically resorts to it when seeking better explanations. Oswald’s last words were, “I’m a patsy,” words that have sent countless people on a frenzied pursuit to name those who they believe pulled Oswald’s strings.

     The wound our nation suffered that Friday, November 22, 1963, on a street in Dallas, Texas has not ever completely healed. I still remember the day. I was ten years old. I was in the fourth grade. Our teacher told us the sad news after our lunch break that our young President was most certainly dead, that someone had shot him while he was riding in a car. A mean thing to do, I thought then and still do.

     On a note of horror, Stephen King’s supreme area of expertise, he ends his book, and so he gives the reader his opinion on gun control, on the necessity of keeping guns out of the zealots’ hands, and on the danger of holding too tight to crazed opinions: “If you want to know what political extremism can lead to, look at the Zapruder film. Take particular note of frame 313, where Kennedy’s head explodes.”