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Best of 2011: Rescuing JFK

11.22.63 by Stephen KingStephen King, 11.22.63, Hodder & Stoughton, November 2011

Political murders have been in the news a lot lately. Gaddafi's ugly last moments at the hands of a mob. Osama bin Laden's more planned demise. I doubt either of these will be remembered as long as the shooting that forms the basis of Stephen King's new novel.

The assassination of American President John F. Kennedy nearly 50 years ago continues to fascinate, and King's is the ultimate voyage into the land of 'what if'. He takes the reader through a portal to the 1950s, where the protagonist may or may not be able to use the intervening years to stop Oswald's infamous 1963 bullet.

The world of the 1950s is brilliantly evoked. Alongside the energetic music and the richer flavours of food, the near-universal smoking and the mile-long cars, wife-bashing seems to be up there with baseball as the national sport of the pre-feminist United States.

As the time-voyager, Jake Epping, journeys south towards Texas and Kennedy's murder, the entrenched racism of the 1950s is brought out through a casual stop at a gas station, where he finds three signs for the toilets: one for men, one for women, one for 'colored'. Jake (who is white) follows the 'colored' path to see:

There was no facility. What I found at the end of the path was a narrow stream with a board laid across it on a couple of crumbling concrete posts. A man who had to urinate could just stand on the bank, unzip, and let fly. A woman could hold onto a bush (assuming it wasn't poison ivy ...) and squat. The board was what you sat on if you had to take a shit. Maybe in the pouring rain.

If I ever gave you the idea that 1958's all Andy-n-Opie, remember the path, okay? The one lined with poison ivy. And the board over the stream.

Warped theology is used to back up this racism. Apparently Ham's glancing at his naked father Noah is responsible for the oppressed state of the 'Negro' in the view of some Southern Baptists. There are billboards stating 'THE AMERICAN COMMUNIST PARTY FAVORS INTEGRATION. THINK ABOUT IT.' The narrator from today notes quietly that that message 'had been paid for by something called The Tea Party Society'. Plus ça change indeed.

King's hero is an English teacher, who muses that in the books of Thomas Hardy 'You know how it's going to end, but instead of spoiling things, that somehow increases your fascination.' We don't really believe Jake will be able to stop Kennedy being killed. But this is not a Thomas Hardy novel; it's Stephen King. I have no intention of spoiling the book for the reader, but King's narrative skills pull us along where no other writer might dare to tread.

One narrative line has Maine defecting from the US and joining Canada. So what? At least they'll get proper health care. But even Canada seems to be a very different place in this version of the present. Small changes in the past can have dramatic ones in the future; the butterfly effect is recast in musical terms, as the narrator finds sympathetic vibrations between various presents and futures. 'The past harmonises,' as he puts it.

Reading the novel, I kept having a niggling feeling of being haunted by another book. It occurred to me later that it was Dickens' A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge is grabbed by ghosts and made to reassess his life. Here, the narrator is no mean-hearted Scrooge, but he seems to be journeying back through America's life in order, perhaps, to produce a kinder America. One that may not throw itself into Vietnam with such lust:

Kennedy was a cold warrior, no doubt about it, but Johnson took it to the next level. He had the same my-balls-are-bigger-than-yours complex that Dubya showed when he stood in front of the cameras and said 'Bring it on.'

Kennedy might have changed his mind. Johnson and Nixon were incapable of that. Thanks to them, we lost almost 60,000 American soldiers in Nam. The Vietnamese, North and South, lost millions. Is the butcher's bill that high if Kennedy doesn't die in Dallas?

Scrooge's ghosts took a whole night to turn him to kindness. Jake's journeys into the past take two minutes in the present, however many years he stays back there. Jake finds love in the past — strangely, with a divorced woman who is also a virgin — and may have to sacrifice that love, and cause pain to his beloved, if he is to produce a better outcome for Kennedy, and perhaps America.

Is killing the assassin of Kennedy in the act of killing justified? Most would say yes; if a murderer is killed while killing, that is acceptable. Is it then justified to journey back in time to kill Oswald before he climbs the steps of the book depository with his Italian rifle? King's hero must be satisfied that there is no other assassin (hidden in a certain grassy knoll, perhaps) before he feels justified in taking Oswald's life.

If he can. The obstacles thrown in his way mount in the best thriller tradition, but King avoids straining credulity (with the possible exception of one convenient bout of amnesia).

People often complain there are no writers of the stature of Dickens anymore. I think that for pure energy and invention mixed with compassion, King stands in that writer's direct line. Dickens' heir is alive and well and living in Maine. Which, so far as I know, is not currently a part of Canada, but of the US. A country which, as always, seems to have very different paths leading into the future. 

P. S. CottierP. S. Cottier is a Canberra based poet and writer.


Topic tags: P. S. Cottier, Stephen King, JFK, assassination, Gaddafi, Osama bin Laden



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