You Can't Always Get What You Want: On Stephen King
As anyone telling a time-travel tale would, King takes the scene slowly. He immerses us in Jake’s disbelief about walking around his small town’s living past and in the particulars, sensual as well as concrete, of the town. What Jake sees is predictable: women in dresses instead of slacks, a teenage boy trying out his best Elvis moves, a thriving produce store and soda fountain, drive-ins where the top of the double bill is a masterpiece (Vertigo) and the bottom half the kind of lush, enjoyable star-laden melodrama Hollywood doesn’t make anymore (The Long, Hot Summer). Some of what Jake sees is less predictable: root beer and candy bars that, in the age before preservatives, taste better. In its quiet way, mid-century Lisbon Falls dazzles Jake, who returns to the present primed to listen to Al’s plan for making the years since 1958 just as good.
The plan is simple: return to the past and kill Lee Harvey Oswald. Al has tried already and failed, and because he’s dying of lung cancer he doesn’t have enough years left to try again. The hitch of the portal is that though each trip into the past lasts only two minutes in present time, the time traveler returns to the present having aged the number of years he’s spent in the past. Al no longer even has the strength to continue making quick trips to buy ground sirloin at 1958 prices, the source of his bargain fatburgers. Al wants Jake to become the lone gunman for America’s future.
As Al tries to persuade Jake to undertake the mission, King introduces a sliver of disjunction that expands as the book progresses. It’s the gap between the grounded can-do American spirit and the visionary tasks it assumes can be accomplished. As Al tells it, all the horrors that America faced in the 1960s and early ’70s flowed from JFK’s assassination. If JFK lives and Johnson doesn’t become president, America doesn’t go to Vietnam and the country doesn’t tear itself apart. Bobby Kennedy is saved because he likely won’t run for the presidency in 1968. JFK’s civil rights accomplishments temper race relations, and Martin Luther King Jr. isn’t assassinated. What’s more, without King’s death there’s no black rage, and then, maybe, Fred Hampton isn’t murdered by the Chicago cops, and then, and then… It all has the quality of a kid spinning out a fantasy on a lazy afternoon. It’s seductive because, as with most counterfactuals, we get to play at being Providence, which is exactly the point.
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Clearly, there’s much wrong with Al’s grasp of history. The cold-warrior exploits of JFK’s presidency—the Bay of Pigs, the reckless brinkmanship of the Cuban missile crisis—might very likely have found their next expression in Vietnam, and received a chorus of approval from the unholy alliance of Ivy League superiority and corporate technocracy that characterized the Best and the Brightest. Kennedy approached civil rights with, at best, a sense of noblesse oblige and, at worst, worries about his uncertain chances in the South in 1964. (As attorney general, Robert Kennedy made a deal for local authorities to arrest Freedom Riders for their own safety, even though the Supreme Court had already outlawed segregated waiting rooms in interstate travel facilities.) It would take a white Southerner, whose roots in the Texas hill country etched the experience of poverty forever in his bones, to approach civil rights as a moral imperative. As for King and the rise of the black power movement, nonviolence always risks—almost counts on—arousing violence, and is always going to be challenged by those sympathizers who see its wise counsel as passivity.
So what? There remains the murder of a young man in his prime, an event that was also a bloody assault on the sense of hope and energy he had brought into politics, a spirit that animated people who would move far beyond the compromises and diffidence of the man who inspired them.
Jake plunges into the past, and much of what follows—Jake traveling the country, setting up as a schoolteacher in a small town near Dallas, falling in love and having to tell his beloved who he is and where he’s from—offers the pampered pleasure of settling into a long, involving story. It’s nearly always a good thing when a new Stephen King novel is fat. King responds with confidence to the challenge of a long narrative, and not only because he loves telling stories. He also takes his responsibility to his readers seriously. The “constant reader” that King often addresses in his novels is not a contemporary writer’s nineteenth-century affectation; it’s a statement of principle. King wants to give his readers an experience that, no matter how violent or upsetting, is luxuriant, the feel of sinking into a book, of living in its world as the pages in our left hand equal and surpass the pages in our right.
Big books are never perfect, and King’s are no exception. Sometimes the drama, particularly where the weak or innocent characters suffer, lapses into melodrama and the violence sinks into genre grue. King has a taste for adolescent scatology without the dirty-little-kid sensibility that, in something like Dumb and Dumber or “The Miller’s Tale,” makes scatology explosively funny. At times his pitch-perfect feel for the texture and details of middle-class life descends into sentimentality, and those pages are irritating to wade through. But what stays with you are the moments of genuine, unforced feeling, like in Bag of Bones when an abruptly widowed man finds a book in which his wife had marked her place with a playing card, and realizes she will never read past that page. The sudden suffusion of the banal with bottomless grief suggests a writer who hasn’t surpassed Our Town (maybe the most spiritually terrorizing American work ever to become widely loved) but understands well enough the emotional depths of Thornton Wilder’s play to holler and be heard.
If King sometimes sentimentalizes small towns, he’s spent enough time in them (and learned enough about them from Shirley Jackson) to understand the violence they breed: the spouse and child battering, the bullying, the backbiting, the jealousy, the destructiveness of gossips and prudes. King’s approach isn’t the trite Peyton Place device of showing the tawdry reality beneath the placid surface. King has more in common with the David Lynch of Blue Velvet, who refuses to separate the peaceful and beautiful from the violent and unmooring in small-town life.
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Well before the narrative reaches the ominous day, King creates a portrait of American life streaked with violence. One incident takes place during the childhood of a man who will grow up to become one of Jake’s GED students. Al has warned Jake that the past itself, determined not to change, will throw every obstacle it can in his way. To see whether he’s right, Jake decides he’ll intercede and stop a nightmare his student lived through as a child. He’s only partly successful, yet he doesn’t think twice about trying again. Here is where King makes us complicit, playing on the sense of justice he believes resides deep in the American character in order to draw us to Jake and his mission, and show how easily, and dangerously, the thought of any bad consequences can be brushed aside. We want to see Jake stop the drunken abuser who’ll murder his family, and if Jake succeeds we’re quite willing for this part of the story to end there. King isn’t. Fittingly, this novel about time travel has a long memory.
Though his treatment of them has sometimes lapsed into caricature, King captures how meager men loom terrifyingly large in the lives of the people they torment. For that reason his portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald is something new in his work. As drawn by King, Oswald is the quintessence of the American loser, a small ferrety presence not given to the terrifying outbursts of King’s usual bullies and bigots. King, who says in the novel’s afterword that he believes Oswald was the lone assassin, understands that Oswald’s puniness is, ironically, just the thing that, in the fevered imaginations of so many, has denied him the glory he was seeking in killing JFK. Who wants to believe that such a nothing of a man is capable of scarring a nation? Certainly no one who wants history to make rational sense. And probably not the readers of a large novel. A book of this size should give us a villain like Bill Sikes or at least Wackford Squeers instead of this scrawny man squirreling away his Russian wife, Marina, and baby daughter in the crummiest apartments, poring over his pathetic leaflets, nursing slights like a moody child.
Even Norman Mailer, who spun the most elaborate JFK conspiracy theories and paid serious attention to others who did, finally accepted Oswald’s guilt but acknowledged that it was Oswald’s puniness that had made his guilt seem so unlikely. King brings that puniness to life in all its grungy detail. Jake moves in across the street from the Oswalds in a Dallas neighborhood stinking of petroleum and raw sewage, the street lined with houses little better than shacks and an ugly Monkey Ward warehouse. He keeps tabs on Oswald and his wife, and the details of their life and the lives around them strand us in a place that geographically, economically and psychically feels as if the New Frontier were taking place on another continent. Cold disgust motivates King’s portrait of Oswald: disgust at what he did, disgust that this amoeba has attached himself to our collective consciousness.
I have no intention of revealing the climax of 11/22/63, but I will say that King does not allow us the comfort of believing in the unassailability of our good intentions. In the way King has of imprinting his nightmares on our memories, by the end of the book he’s freed us from Camelot and its myth of hope, from the idea that everything was all right while it lasted, and would have been had it survived. He’s also trying to free us from—or at least to identify—a few demons of the present.
“On the day Kennedy landed at Love Field, Dallas was a hateful place,” King writes in the afterword. There are echoes of the protests against President Obama in placards that read Help JFK Stamp Out Democracy. While it’s tempting for the left to feel superior to the thuggish and moronic elements of the radical right, it, too, or at least its bien-pensant caucus, is a target of this novel. There are plenty of reasons to be disappointed with or even angry about Obama’s performance. His persistent attempts to reach a consensus with people whose every utterance demonstrates they’ve abandoned common sense and common decency suggest someone who approaches the presidency with the ameliorating style of corporate management rather than the mixture of vision and street-fighting necessary in a president.
But to listen to the endless parade of white left commentators who have accused Obama of abandoning his base because he hasn’t achieved perfection in politics or in social justice is to realize that the radical right doesn’t have a monopoly on the divisiveness Obama’s presidency has given rise to. I’m not suggesting that Obama’s blackness makes criticizing him off-limits. But the reduction of the meaning of Obama solely to his policy decisions, the implicit dismissal of what the fact of Barack Obama means to people who before him never felt they had a voice in American politics—just as the fact of JFK made other people find their political voice for the first time—is not unlike the blindness King captures in 11/22/63. It is the seed of a reckless politics built on wish fulfillment. The constant pleasure of reading 11/22/63 is, as the National Book Foundation committee noted of King’s work in general, attributable to his belief in “the abiding power of narrative.” For a novelist who has specialized in making the everyday terrifying, 11/22/63 is something new, an alternative reality that tells us there are worse things to be scared of than the world as it is.