Jake Epping is an English teacher. He is divorced and lonely, spending his free time at a trailer-café run by his friend Al, purveyor of such delicacies as the locally-famous ‘catburger’. One thing leads to another, and before you can say ‘second-hand smoke’ we are through a portal and into 1958. Of course, Al isn’t running platinum standard history walks for Trip Advisor reviews. He wants something from Jake. He wants Jake to go back and stop the most famous assassination in the last millennium.
Now fiction is a crowded market, even for someone as celebrated as Mr. King. As such, I think that a book needs to work increasingly hard to earn the reader’s attention after 350-00 pages. At 740 pages this is in doorstopper territory, and doesn’t quite justify the length. It is certainly enjoyable, though.
There is a necessity in a time travel novel to explore the mechanics of winding back the clock. Such a laying out of rules and regulations can be tiresome for the reader. Butterfly effects, consequences, resets and all negotiated through Jake’s conversations with Al. The reader knows the rules without recourse to a subsidiary notebook.
The protagonist is likeable enough. The romance he finds with the librarian Sadie is fine if slightly banal, and King takes her character arc in an interesting and brave direction. Oswald is also well-drawn, although King is limited in what he can do with such an exhaustively-researched character. The stand-out for me, though, is the 1950/60s world. Maine, Derry (with a nice little nod to ‘It’) and Dallas are all beautifully crafted, from ice-cream sodas to the fug of cigarette smoke in seedy bars.
Where the book falls down for me is in the basic premise. We never really understand why Jake chooses Kennedy, apart from a fairly weak assumption that the Vietnam war might not have taken place if JFK had been alive. Given it was the same White House with the same staff that sent the GIs in, this seems like a flimsy premise, and the delicate nature of causality that King is at pains to emphasise throughout leaves us wondering why Jake is so sure he is morally correct to intervene as he does.
The final coming together with Oswald is both well plotted and executed, and the end is genuinely moving. If only it had a stronger moral imperative and had received a closer editing trim, this could have been one of Stephen King’s best novels.
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Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Close to the Bone, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, Cafelit, Best MicroFiction 2021, Writer’s Egg, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father. He blogs at www.matthewjrichardson.com and tweets at https://twitter.com/mjrichardso0