Monday, June 4, 2012


Stephen King is one of the greats, for sure. I was completely transported by 11/22/63, a novel based around this one question: what if somebody had been able to stop the assassination of JFK?

King explains a little about it here.

I love that when I read one of his books, I’m completely unaware of the shoptalk side of novel writing. I’m just taken in and along for the ride. I think that’s a mark of excellence, if there is one. I had to force myself to notice that it’s written in the first person, that he juggles tenses, that he uses fragments, that he has lots of subplots going on in the background. I loved it all.

I was telling a friend that King must have done scads of research, because he completely nailed it. It wasn’t just the socio-political climate of the late fifties and early sixties, which was much closer than we are to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, World War II, the Cold War, segregation in the South and Jim Crow, and the kind of relations between the sexes that one can see in an episode of Mad Men. Not to mention the boozing and the smoking. Plus, it was before all those major watershed moments that have defined our contemporary world: the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the eighties obsession with materialism, 9/11, Y2K, the internet age, and digital this and that.

There were good parts to the fifties and sixties as well, and King nails those, too. Not that I was there. But I felt like I was. There was real root beer in real glasses. Ice cream made from real cream and sugar. Bicycles and paper boys. Telephones on kitchen walls, their numbers with the exchange letters as a prefix. Cars without any plastic in them or on them. Libraries with card catalogs. Banks without security cameras. And a whole bunch more that was implied or left to the reader’s imagination; another mark of excellence.

It was a world more innocent. It was delicious to linger there. It reminded me of my childhood a little, of low sunset light streaming in through single pane windows in a farmhouse kitchen that always had a certain aroma to it. It was like sinking into the perfect easy chair.

There was also, though, the lingering aftertaste of…well…dissatisfaction. If I could wish for anything, it would be a more tightly wrapped ending. There were a lot of questions left dangling out in the breeze because of one little detail at the end of the book. It didn’t cancel out the magnificence of the work, though. I’m more and more inclined to think lately that the great novels are like the master works on canvas: there’s no disputing the touch of a master’s hand, but one has to account for tastes and preferences in the reader too. After all, a story is an expression of the storyteller, and if the beholder doesn’t connect, he doesn’t connect. Authors spin a good yarn, but we're not magicians. I can amend that by saying some of us appear to be wizards. That would be King.

I connected with the vast majority of this book. King is still a little too broad-brush chummy with leftist Democrats and their assessments for my taste, but then again, he’s always been that way and I've liked him anyway. He managed to pull off a story centered on politics with reasonable poise and balance. He did it better than I probably could. But another thing I didn’t like: the love scene sections that were full-bore erotica. It was an endearing character study on humanity, sure. But it’s not my cuppa. And I thank God we don’t have a meddlesome federal government trying to protect us from books yet. The last thing I want is for my books to carry labels for content; I’m not complaining. “Just an observation,” as James May might point out.

What he wrote, and the skillful way he wrote it, is food for thought for me for the next little while. He managed a large cast of characters really well. Much better than another book I tried to read recently, which introduced ten characters on the first two pages; yikes. Nope. King is really good. This book was masterfully paced, clearly thought out, and a heck of a lot of fun to read. Good fiction is so hard to find these days. But not when it has these four letters on the spine.

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