A surprising one for me to be reading – and enjoying. I have never read a Stephen King novel, and never thought I would. Horror either puts me off or gives me nightmares. (His brilliant primer, On Writing, is another matter).
I was swayed to read it by the rave review that Mark Lawson gave it in The Guardian. From which we also learn that it’s his 54th work of fiction. The mind boggles.
Everyman Jake Epping, a high school English teacher, is persuaded to use the ‘rabbit-hole’ to 1958 that the local diner owner, Al, has discovered in his storeroom. Al passes on to Jake, as a dying man’s request, his mission to live in the past for 5 years until he is able to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating JFK.
I’m a sucker for some time-travel puzzling and King has some enjoyable details about the mechanics of the business. Jake can take things from the present to the past, so Al has saved him some useful 1950s dollars. Every trip through the rabbit hole, whether two hours or two years, lasts only two minutes in the present. Whenever Jake enters the rabbit-hole, the past is reset. This means that if he were to kill a putative murderer (not necessarily Oswald – there are others) while visiting the past then return to the 2011 diner, the man would be back to his living state is Jake were to step into 1958. So, if the job was worth doing, it will need to be done again.
King uses a common, successful device in fiction – the alien visitor. Jake has to learn how to dress, talk and behave in a world that is familiar but distinctively unlike his own. He must to assume a new identity, and buy appropriate clothes. There is widespread racism and non-stop cigarette smoking, but better food and – apart from the murderers he feels a responsibility to stop – people are generally nicer to each other.
The book is compelling, miss-your-bus-stop stuff. And of course you want to know whether he will manage to stop Oswald killing Kennedy – and if, indeed, he’ll find out whether it was definitely Oswald who shot him, thus disprove reams of conspiracy theories. And, if Kennedy will survive, how will King re-imagine the future when (and if) Jake returns to 2011?
It definitely falls on the ‘readability’ end of the debate activated by the latest Booker prize jury. But Stephen King doesn’t let words get in the way of a good story. Which is sometimes just what you need.