The problem with 11/22/63 is its title. To King’s generation that date may be as memorable as 9/11, but that generation and its self-obsession is fading away. Had 11/22/63 been the monomaniacal obsession with saving JFK that the title and cover suggests, it wouldn’t be worth reading. Despite the reams of research though, it isn’t.
What 11/22/63 actually is, is an unwieldy book. 11/22/63 isn’t a failure like The Dome, instead it’s unbalanced as if Stephen King doesn’t know what his own novel is about. An extended section in Derry which tries to piggyback on his vastly superior IT makes that obvious. But King finds his footing with a doomed love story set in a small town in Texas.
11/22/63 is at its weakest when following around Lee Harvey Oswald’s pathetic life. King attempts to fictionalize Oswald, but still can’t make him compelling or interesting. He attempts to turn Dallas into Derry and flirts with Oswald as demonically possessed, but seems to have enough common sense not to follow through with those ideas.
Instead 11/22/63 ends up telling the classic time travel story of a man from the future, a teacher named Jake Epping, who finds a better life in the past and a love that he has to give up. Unfortunately King doesn’t really seem to understand that this is his story until he has already told it. The entire novel reeks of being undeveloped, though not as badly as The Dome was. It moves jerkily around without knowing where it’s going until the end.
Too much of 11/22/63 seems to take it for granted that saving JFK will make the world a better place, without seriously defending it, that the “twist” which everyone who has ever read Science Fiction can predict, fits in awkwardly. The dreaded future that King belatedly takes us to is even more poorly written. And the entire conclusion of the novel is clumsy and clunky, only partially redeemed by an ending apparently suggested by his son.
The saving grace of 11/22/63 is that this time King has a main character with hopes and dreams, rather than a pasteboard target for scoring political points. King misses with Derry, he misses with Dallas, but when in doubt he goes back and breathes life into the cliche of small town Americana where the food tastes better, the cars run faster and where life is felt more deeply.
11/22/63 is not a great novel, or even a particularly good one, but it has its moments. Unfortunately it also has Stephen King, whose Uncle Stevie title now seems a little too fitting, delivering random political diatribes. The experience is a little like that family dinner where your crazy uncle begins ranting about his expected targets. It’s not that he’s necessarily wrong, it’s that his diatribes are boring and narrow-minded.
King’s politics are pat. His good people are Catholics, his bad people are Baptists. 11/22/63 has no shortage of racist stereotypes, but takes its bows for denouncing racism. His worship of JFK is weird and off-putting when we know a little too much about him to believe it. 11/22/63 tries to go for political commentary, but knows enough to back off, but not enough to scrub the whole thing.
Like The Dome, 11/22/63 is a mistake. Not quite a revived trunk novel, but a trunk idea, badly managed. Still it has its charm and that charm is in Jolie, Texas. When it leaves Jolie, its reason for existing goes with it.