As I’ve explained over on my blog, I like Stephen King’s writing but dislike a lot of his subject matter (particularly the horror), so I haven’t really read a lot of his books. But when I realized his latest novel was about time-travel — a story about an average guy in today’s world who discovers a portal to the year 1958, and decides to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy — well, I couldn’t wait to read it. I love time-travel, and this novel is, hands-down, the best thing about time-travel I’ve ever read.
The time travel device here is never explained, and who really cares? But the way it works is pretty straightforward — the portal always takes you to a particular day in September 1958, and every time you go through the portal, every change to history that you made on your last visit is erased and history goes back to the way it was. Jake, the main character, takes up a dying friend’s challenge to go back and prevent an event that many Americans see as a watershed moment without which their history might have been much better — the Kennedy assassination of 1963. Before doing that, Jake has another challenge — he wants to prevent another, more private act of violence, and positively affect the life of one of his former students.
He has to do this twice, because after the first time, of course, he has to pop back to 2011 and see if it worked. And it did — sort of. Things didn’t turn out exactly as Jake hoped, but he figures he can fix that on his next trip to the past, when he goes back for a much longer visit. Five years, in fact — long enough to prevent the assassination. Also long enough to get used to living in the late 50s and early 60s — for the most part. He finds many things that he loves about the past — the cars, the music, the prices — but even after several years there is still jarred by the casual racism and sexism (and still misses his cellphone at crucial moments).
Most importantly, five years in the past is long enough to fall in love. And of course that changes everything.
In this version of time travel, you can change history, but it’s difficult. The past doesn’t want to be changed, and events conspire against Jake, making it difficult for his to achieve his ultimate goal. Worse still, he has no idea what the long-term consequences might be — until he goes back to his own time, and faces a heart-rending choice.
This is just a beautiful, engaging, absolutely gripping page-turner. I found it hard to put down. For those who, like me, dislike King’s horror writing, I’ll warn you that the only trace of it here is that when violent events do happen, they are described with a bit more graphic detail than I think is strictly necessary — there were a few pages I had to skim over a bit. But for the most part, this is a great story that works equally well as a period piece and as a time-travel story. I recommend it very highly, especially to those who are intrigued by the concept of tampering with the past.