Summary: Jake Epping has an opportunity to undo one of the defining moments of a generation. Don’t forget about The Butterfly Effect, though.
Setting: Late 1950’s / early 1960’s & present day
Plot: Jake is a high school teacher in (where else?) Maine. In addition to his normal classes, he teaches GED night school to adults as well. The high school janitor is in his adult class, and when the janitor relates (in a writing assignment) the story of how his abusive (and estranged) father killed all the other members of the family, Jake is moved almost to tears.
The dying owner of a diner (an acquaintance named Al) calls Jake, and over a late meeting at the diner, shows Jake a specific spot in the back pantry of the diner, and tells Jake that this particular spot is inexplicably linked with a different time, telling him that if he walks into this specific spot, he will be transported back to the late 1950’s. Jake is understandably skeptical until Al talks him into taking a journey back in time, as a test.
Jake makes the test journey (and returns unharmed), and is convinced. He makes another journey to the 1950’s to save the other members of the janitor’s family, so he can see for himself what consequences changes in the past can have on the present, and learns that due to The Butterfly Effect, small changes can have wide-reaching effects.
Al gives him a mission: Travel back to the late 50’s, and make his way to Dallas in time to stop Oswald from shooting Kennedy in 1963. Al sets him up with some money, and some research that he’s done to make the job a bit easier (sports results, research into Oswald’s life and movements leading up to the shooting).
Jake decides to stop Oswald, but first he has to live through 5+ years in the 1950’s and 60’s, waiting for the right time to act. He fits an entire lifetime into that 5 years.
Criticisms: No technical criticisms. A little jumpy at the end, but it’s by design. A lot of King’s books do that, and while this book’s got a few of those trademark “end a paragraph in the middle of a sentence, then continue the sentence in the next paragraph but change the topic of the sentence in the middle” changes, there are remarkably few of them. It’s King’s style, and you’ll see hundreds of those “transitions” in a book like “The Stand”. This book has only 3 or 4 of them.
Wrap-up: King is unfairly classified as a horror writer, and there are two kinds of readers:
1. Those who have read a lot of Stephen King and know that the characterization of him as strictly “Horror” is not accurate;2. Those who have read a couple of King’s horror novels and have decided that they don’t like him because his books are too scary, or won’t read his books in the first place because they don’t like horror.
This novel has no horror in it. None.
There are parts that can be a little bit gory, but there’s absolutely no horror.
While this book is ostensibly about going back in time and preventing the assassination of JFK, I’m not certain that that’s a fair characterization of it; I think the book is more about the journey that Jake takes (both in terms of distance, and over 5 years) while waiting for his chance to act. He has time during his journey to get in trouble with the mob (in two different locations), make a difference to an entire class of high schoolers (in one case, one of the stars of a high school football team decides to focus on drama and acting instead), and to fall in love; all while trying to reconcile the false identity (from the 1950’s and 1960’s) that he’s had to create with his true identity from the 2000’s.
Regardless of genre, King is a master of his craft, and if you haven’t read any of his “non-horror” work because you don’t like scary stuff, you’re missing out on some wonderful writing and doing yourself quite a disservice. All of his books (with the exception of a couple of NF’s and some of his earliest work) are quite solid, and I can’t think of many writers who are even in the same class as King in regards to verisimilitude.
If you want some suggestions of other Stephen King books to take a look at (that aren’t horror), let me know. I can suggest a few for you.
As far as this book - there is no “pat” ending to it; it’s not all wrapped up with a pretty bow on top of it. This book doesn’t end with “happily ever after”. Stories in real life rarely end like that either. If that’s what you’re looking for, this may not be the book for you. If you want a realistic book where the hero has to make some tough choices and live with the consequences of his decisions, give it a try.
Grade: By my arbitrary scale, I give this book an A-.