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December 7, 2011

My Christmas Book Pick

Confession: Up until this week, the only book by Stephen King I’d read was On Writing:  A Memoir of the Craft – I liked it a lot. However, I’m not a fan of horror, fantasy or science fiction genres – I didn’t get that gene and yes, I do feel badly about that every so often. Also, I wonder about the large number of books and short stories he’s written. He’s so prolific; he’s like a book factory! What’s up with that? Can an author be that productive and still be taken seriously? Shouldn’t there at least be a few fraught-filled years between masterpieces? In my small and insular world of literary fiction, I patiently await the latest work from my favorite authors, who I know are suffering in self-loathing and angst-filled solitude while they purge their souls to pound out that story that will give new meaning to our lives. Sometimes it never comes. It’s the price you pay for genius, right?

For about a decade, I’ve heard a lot of scuttle about the respect King has garnered. He’s doesn’t write pulp fiction – he’s a master. He’s crossed genres, or genre-less. He’s raised the bar. He’s jumped over the bar. He’s won all sorts of awards. Whatever, I still ignored him. Increasingly, though, I have felt suspiciously out-of-the-loop when I’ve had to admit that no, I’m not a King fan. I did buy a couple of old King classics such as The Stand, and Cujo, a few years ago, but never cracked their spines. Back when I lived in Sarasota, Florida, a friend, who has since passed on, gave me his treasured 1982 copy of Creep Show. I protested saying it would be wasted on me, but he insisted – he wanted it to be in the hands of someone who would take good care of it. (I have — it’s wrapped in Mylar.) Soon after that, I caught a glimpse of King himself at a local electronics store. He is tall with a very serious face, and I gaped at him from afar. Looking back, it was prescient of my friend to hand over his treasure to me, and good fortune on my part to have actually seen the semi-reclusive King, because today I finished 11/22/63 and can now declare myself a huge fan.  As the main character Jake would say, “I’ve closed the circle.”

When I heard that King’s latest book was about traveling back in time to when JFK was still alive, I realized I’d found my rabbit hole into his work. I grew up in an Irish Catholic house, so we were rabid fans of Kennedy. My grandmother had two things on her walls: crucifixes and pictures of JFK. Getting him into the White House was like the Second Coming for us. The time travel theme, which has always been an interest of mine (Who wouldn’t give everything to have a do-over on at least one choice they made?), tipped the scales and so I bought the doorstopper of a book as soon as it hit the shelves.

I started reading it and, at first, the language seemed plain compared to some of the beautiful prose I spend my days reading. There’s just nothing elegant about King’s writing style. I was ready to give it up.  But about 20 pages in, the power of the story took hold and once it did, everything else fell by the wayside. Best of all, I came to appreciate the spare wording because it never stood in front of the story. The dialogue became seamless, which to me is the true measure of an author’s talent. I read that he sat on this book for 30 years and researched it down to the nth degree. It shows. A voluminous amount of detail drenches this page-turning behemoth. Everything’s there, from the chenille bedspread in a sad little motel, to haircuts with Aqua Velva, the music, and the Ban-Lon pants. I simply sat back, relaxed, and let myself be transported completely, happily and harmoniously to another time. Although the book is a hefty 849 pages long, the story just flew down the tracks and, as with any terrific story, I was sad when it ended.

All I will say about the story is that it stars Jake Epping, a thirty-five-year-old newly divorced English teacher, living in the present day. Jake’s good friend Al, who owns a diner, calls him one night to let him in on a little secret. The secret shakes Jake to his roots and he begins to wonder if he could possibly change the course of history by going back in time. That’s it. I read the book without any spoilers, you should too. To say anymore would take all the pleasure out of it. Suffice it to say, King’s novel is loaded with a great cast of characters – good and very bad – suspense, intrigue, and adrenaline-filled chase and be-chased scenes. There are deeper issues below the surface: good and evil, love and loss, the butterfly effect. That’s the theory that says every action has a reaction, no matter how small and insignificant it is. There’s also an old-fashioned love story and a surprise ending. What more could you possibly want?

If you’ve been on the fence about whether Stephen King is the right read for you, please take my word for it and make the leap. If you’re already a King fan, then you will be very happy.

Now that I’ve broken the King barrier, I will have to read more, of course. Where to start – there’s so much to choose from! I’m so glad that although “the past may be obdurate” as we are told many times in 11/22/63, fortunately, I am not. I’m calling it my Christmas pick for 2011. It’s got absolutely everything you need to make your holidays complete.

Scribner, 2011

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