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Stephen King follows Delillo, Stone into JFK myth

March 3, 2011 | 11:13 am

Stephenking_2010 Mega-bestselling author Stephen King has been getting serious in recent years, moving from undead pets, haunted hotels and other unexplained phenomena into the true story of his terrible injury (he was hit by a car, and no, it wasn't Christine) and penning the preface to the Best American Short Stories anthology.

And he's jumping into the presidential assassination conspiracy fire with his next book, "11/22/63." The book, announced Wednesday, is both about the assassination of President Kennedy and the sun-dappled Kennedy years that preceded it. And a Maine teacher who travels through time.

From King's official website:

Jake Epping is a thirty-five-year-old high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching adults in the GED program. He receives an essay from one of the students — a gruesome, harrowing first person story about the night 50 years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a hammer. Harry escaped with a smashed leg, as evidenced by his crooked walk.

Not much later, Jake’s friend Al, who runs the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to 1958. He enlists Jake on an insane — and insanely possible — mission to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination. So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson and his new world of Elvis and JFK, of big American cars and sock hops, of a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and a beautiful high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill, who becomes the love of Jake’s life....

The events leading up to the Kennedy assassination have gotten major cultural treatment before. Oliver Stone's 1991 film "JFK" won two Oscars. Maybe less well-known generally, but certainly looming large literarily is Don Delillo's novel "Libra," which was a finalist for the L.A. Times book prize.

When the book came out in 1988, Delillo told the Times that the Kennedy assassination was "the turning point in consciousness" for Americans. From our article:

"I think we have been suspicious ever since....The assassination sends out tributaries in so many different directions," DeLillo said. In treating the material through fiction, "I wanted to convey not only what happened in the months and years before, but how we have interpreted it almost unwittingly. I think in the past 25 years we have seemed to have entered the world of randomness and ambiguity."

By sending a contemporary character back through time, King also seems to be wrestling with this larger question, of how Kennedy's assassination affected our ideas of knowability, of story and uncertainty. This is, of course, also King's stock in trade, although his has a supernatural twist: the grey maybe, the might-have-been, the what-if. 

The site for King's new book asks, "If you had the chance to change history, would you? Would the consequences be worth it?" I admit, I can't help but think of Marty McFly on that stage in "Back to the Future" -- where the stakes are much lower, of course, and all will end well. But on Nov. 22, 1963 -- and in King's "11/22/63" -- this presents a much more powerful and challenging question, one that points to two levels of tragedy, the personal and the national.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Stephen King in 2010. Credit: Dick Dickinson

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