My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I was a big Stephen King fan over the years, beginning with Carrie, which came out when I was in high school and was joyfully passed from hand to hand, becoming steadily more tattered. King was doing something new, writing about things none of us had seen in print, in a voice that was new and somehow creepy and matter-of-fact at the same time, and what we would come to recognize over the years as uniquely Kingish. I couldn’t get enough of his books, bought every new one that came out.
Until the Dark Tower series. I know very little about making your living by writing and editing and publishing books and I’m sure there are considerations I’ve never thought of, but I got tired of waiting six and seven years between installments, and I quit buying them. (George R.R. Martin, are you listening?) Maybe I just got burned out altogether. Although I bought Cell and Lisey’s Story I never got around to reading them; I’m pretty they’re in storage after my last two adventures in moving house. Once the entire Dark Tower series had been published I bought them all used and read them straight through, then put Stephen King away for several years. Maybe it was just time to discover other things.
Recently my literary life has been flashing before my eyes, calling me to reread books I’ve loved decades ago. Carrie was among those, along with The Stand, which is my favorite of King’s novels and one of my overall favorite novels of all time. That got me wondering what he’s been doing lately. 11/22/63 had two hooks to land me: the JFK assassination and time travel. (Many years ago I read another novel about a time traveler who keeps Kennedy alive, with dire results, and I can’t remember the title or author and it’s driving me crazy.)
King’s contribution to the body of JFK conjecture is stellar, and his research shows. There is no glossing over the ugly things from the late 50’s and early 60’s: the racism and segregation, the misogyny, the clouds of smokestack emissions and cigarette smoke everywhere you go. Still, immersing yourself in this book is a lovely return to a more idyllic time, including the early days of rock ‘n’ roll and the stirring of America’s racial and environmental conscience. This book is many things all at the same time: science fiction, mostly, including alternate history, time travel, the butterfly effect, and chaos theory. There’s a wee bit of horror (thankfully only a hint of Pennywise the Clown; sorry, but I didn’t much care for It). There’s a love story, too.
Stephen King is considered by many to be a hack, and that’s really unfair. (And I’m sure every time some book snob looks down their nose at him, he goes into a corner and cries, blowing his nose with money.) So he writes a lot of horror; so what? So he writes a lot, period. So what? He’s written books I didn’t like much (the aforementioned It; The Tommyknockers; I like my creepy-crawlies more metaphysical than corporeal), but he’s also written books I loved enough to read again. Mozart was prolific too, but his genius is recognized. Dickens and Poe were called hacks in their day.
I love well-crafted phrases and exquisite prose, of course, but while King is capable of that, I don’t think that’s really what his voice is. That doesn’t make it not worth listening to. So many times Literature with a capital L has left me snoring or wondering what the hell the book was even about, when all I really want is a good read, with a world I feel I’ve stepped right into, characters I feel I know personally, and a story I feel like I’m actually living. It doesn’t get much better than that, and Stephen King usually comes through. If he’s a hack, then he’s my favorite hack.