Thursday, January 5, 2012

Case Study No. 0153: Sadie Dunhill

Booktopia Presents: 11.22.63 by Stephen King ISBN 9781444727302
On November 22, 1963, three shots rang out in Dallas, President Kennedy died, and the world changed.

If you had the chance to change history, would you?

Would the consequences be worth it?

The great innovator, Stephen King, explores new territory with this invitation for readers to time travel back to the late 50s... from a world of i-pods and mobile phones to a world of James Dean, Plymouth Fury cars, root beer and Lindy Hopping

and to the day that Kennedy was shot - unless ....

Jake Epping is a thirty-five-year-old high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching in an adult education programme. Not long after Jake has received 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 - 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 existence as George Amberson and his new world of Elvis and JFK, 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 - a life that transgresses all the normal rules of time.

With extraordinary imaginative power, King explores the culture of a simpler era and weaves it into a devastating exercise in escalating suspense.

Jamie Hodder-Williams acquired the book from Chuck Verrill at Darhansoff & Verrill in New York, obtaining BCN, ex Canada. Verrill comments: 'The novel is big, ambitious and haunting. King has probably absorbed the social, political and popular culture of his American generation as thoroughly and imaginatively as any other writer.'

Philippa Pride, King's UK editor, says: '11.22.63 is the best WHAT IF ...? novel I have ever read. Combining the best of Stephen King's intimate suspense stories with the scope of an epic, our number one bestselling, and much-loved author, has created a truly sensational read which will be THE book of 2011.'

About the Author

Stephen King has written some forty books and novellas, including CARRIE, THE STAND and RITA HAYWORTH AND SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (from the collection DIFFERENT SEASONS), BAG OF BONES, ON WRITING and most recently CELL, LISEY'S STORY and DUMA KEY. He wrote several novels under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman, including BLAZE (June 2007). He won America's prestigious National Book Award and was voted Grand Master in the 2007 Edgar Allen Poe awards. He lives with his wife, novelist Tabitha King, in Maine, USA.

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If you could go back in time

Would you?

And what would it mean for the future?

Stephen King returns

With a novel so powerful

Everyone will remember

Where they were when they read it

Stephen King



Al owns a diner, which has a pantry, and the pantry is a hole into the past, specifically to September 9, 1958. King doesn't try to explain this, which is just as well. Jake and Al decide that Jake is going to go back and stop Lee Harvey Oswald.

As it turns out, Jake likes the past. King does too. The root beer was better. The music was better. Life was simpler. Neighborhoods were safer. The best thing about 11/22/63 is King's warm, precise portrait of the 1950's, for which he clearly feels a powerful longing. It's pleasant watching Jake set up his life there. He has a fake identity. Like Biff in Back to the Future Part II, he bets on sporting events that he knows the outcome of. He's clever and efficient. It's like watching Robinson Crusoe set up house on his island.

Since the time-hole is permanently set on 1958, and JFK died in 1963, Jake has five years to kill. So he rights a few local historical wrongs in Derry, Maine (where King has set a couple of other novels; according to Professor Cruz, some characters from It make a cameo), then he moves to Texas, the better to surveil Oswald. Jake becomes a teacher in a small town near Dallas, where he finds a tall, lovably gawky librarian named Sadie to fall in love with.

We have a lot of time to kill too. The big question, of course, is will-he-won't-he stop Oswald, but it's a long haul to the fateful day, and the wires go slack from time to time. Much of the book's tension comes from the fact that the past doesn't like being changed. It throws up barriers to keep Jake from changing the timestream-a fallen tree, a sudden illness, a stalled car-and the more major the change, the more serious the barriers. (There's a whiff of Final Destination in 11/22/63.) But Jake spends a lot of time noodling around inspiring his students and flirting with Sadie, too. The book wanders in the middle, from genre to genre, from thriller to romance to mystery to period piece to Friday Night Lights.

Only rarely does King go to his horror-writer chops, but those are the moments when I really felt the master's presence-King is a diligent journeyman when it comes to staging a romance, but when he does horror the book snaps into hi-res. When Jake emerges from the time-hole, or whatever it is, he's immediately greeted by a drunken bum who seems to realize that there's something different about Jake-he doesn't belong there. The bum carries a yellow card on his hat, and Al has named him the Yellow Card Man, though sometimes his card changes color for reasons that are obscure. The Yellow Card Man calls Jake "Jimla," a nonsense word that recurs in odd places throughout Jake's story, and slowly but surely fills with dreadful meaning. The Yellow Card Man is a surreal presence who hovers over much of the book, reminding us that, even as he lives out a 1950s idyll, Jake is messing with forces beyond his understanding. Maybe it's dangerously self-indulgent to think that one man can rewrite history to his specifications. Maybe he's not so different from Oswald.

Given the discipline and the cold, cutting skill with which King handles the few horror elements of 11/22/63, it's surprising how sentimental he's willing to go. He actually talks us through a high-school performance of Of Mice and Men-starring a protege of Jake's, a football-player-turned actor-in something close to real-time. The audience collapses in sobs; I didn't. When a cheerleader receives a disfiguring scar in a car accident, the whole school pitches in and puts on a revue to pay for plastic surgery. Sadie herself, as a lonely small-town librarian, is at least half-cliche.

King also curses Sadie with a crazy and abusive but not very interesting ex-husband, the better to obtain our sympathy for her. I don't mind being manipulated - as a reader, that's what I'm here for - but gently does it. Just as Jake feels the fell hand of history pushing him this way and that, I felt the hand of King rubbing my nose in Sadie's misery, demanding that I feel sorry for her. He's overplaying a winning hand. I already liked Sadie! I didn't need to pity her too. (Because of said ex's craziness, by the way, Sadie is still a virgin when Jake meets her. All for Jake!)

But I stuck with 11/22/63. I had to: it was simply too pleasant living in King's vision of the past, where the entire world is suffused in a golden glow arising from the absence of cell phones and e-mail and homeland security and all our other modern miracles. And I was too interested in the grand loop of King's time-travel conceit. It's rare that time travelers have really good, specific reasons to go back in time, beyond averting a chrono-flux vortex or whatever. But Jake does, and I cared about him. And I wanted to know: what kind of twist does an 800-page time-travel novel lead up to?

I found out. The build-up is better than the payoff, as it almost always is. But there's a lot to be said for a good build-up, and it's not a cop-out. 11/22/63 asks a good question: what if this world-as cruel, tragic and horrifying as it is-really is the best of all possible worlds? If there's no good answer to that question, it's not King's fault.



What if you had an opportunity to change history, but you had to uproot your life to do it?

That's the question facing Jake Epping, the high-school teacher/hero of Stephen King's intriguing new novel, "11/22/63." For readers too young to know it, that's a date that once rolled off the tongue as easily as 9/11 does today -- when President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas.

Epping, a 35-year-old English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine -- one of King's favorite locales and where he went to high school -- is put in this dilemma by his old friend Al, the owner of a local diner.

Al, who's dying of lung cancer -- one of many references to the ills of smoking -- shares a whopper of a story about time travel. Jake can go back to the past through a portal in the pantry in the back of the diner.

Al wants Jake to prevent JFK's assassination. Of course, it's not as easy as setting the wayback machine to Nov. 22, 1963, and bopping Lee Harvey Oswald on the head before he shoots.

The portal, which they call a rabbit hole, only leads to 1958, so if Jake agrees to Al's request, he has to stay in the past for five years. And when he returns to the present day, if he travels back in time again, everything from the first visit to the past is reset. And then there's "the butterfly effect," which ,in essence, is a lot of unintended consequences.

It may sound silly, but King manages to make it plausible -- with concrete theories and rules about time travel.

Jake's first, brief trip back in time is an eye-opener. While the root beer at the local soda shop tastes better, pollution spewing unregulated from the local mills fouls the air.

When he returns to 2011, he's got an idea to test the whole changing-the-past theory. The school janitor is in Jake's GED class, and has written a terribly sad essay about the day his father murdered his mother, sister and bother and left him crippled, on Halloween night, 1958.

After that test, Jake finally agrees to the big mission.

Taking on a new identity as George Amberson, Jake makes his way to Texas, where he settles in All-American small-town Jodie and signs on to teach English at the local high school. At the same time, he rents a series of shabby apartment in nearby Fort Worth and Dallas, in order to spy on assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

But, as Jake and Al point out many times, the past does not want to be changed. It throws up roadblocks. The biggest of these is Jake falling in love. Tall, slender Sadie, who's fled a bad marriage in Georgia, becomes the school librarian, and the two become a couple, beloved by almost everyone in town.

King spends an awful lot of time on the mundane daily life of Oswald and his family. Maybe it's his way of showing the horror that can spring from the most unexpected sources. Still, we hardly need a description of Oswald's overbearing mother, Marguerite, like this one: "This evening she was wearing blue slacks that were unfortunate, considering the generous spread of her butt."

But the days and hours leading up to events we now know as unfortunate history read like a great thriller.

King also peppers his pages with funny time-travel references. Sadie, for example, is aghast when Jake/George absentmindedly sings the 1969 Rolling Stones' hit "Honky Tonk Woman" and its raunchy (for 1962) lyrics.

And when he reveals that in the future, "the president is a black man," a disbelieving Sadie says, "Are you telling me there's a Negro is the White House?"

As we all know, and as King illustrates, time changes everything.



(JODIE) 77-year-old Deacon "Deke" Simmons arrived too late on Wednesday night to save Sadie Dunhill from being wounded, but things could have been much worse for the 28-year-old Dunhill, a popular librarian in the Denholm Consolidated School District.

According to Douglas Reems, the Jodie town constable, "If Deke hadn't arrived when he did, Miss Dunhill almost certainly would have been killed." When approached by reporters, Simmons would only say, "I don't want to talk about it, it's over."

According to Constable Reems, Simmons overpowered the much younger John Clayton and wrestled away a small revolver. Clayton then produced the knife with which he had wounded his wife and used it to slash his own throat. Simmons and another man, George Amberson of Dallas, tried to stop the bleeding to no avail. Clayton was pronounced dead at the scene.

Mr. Amberson, a former teacher in the Denholm Consolidated School District who arrived shortly after Clayton had been disarmed, could not be reached for comment but told Constable Reems at the scene that Clayton - a former mental patient - may have been stalking his ex-wife for months. The staff at Denholm Consolidated High School had been alerted, and principal Ellen Dockerty had obtained a picture, but Clayton was said to have disguised his appearance.

Miss Dunhill was transported by ambulance to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where her condition is listed as fair.



Afterward, she lit a cigarette. I lay watching the smoke drift up and turn blue in the occasional moonlight coming through the half-drawn curtains. I'd never leave the curtains that way at Neely Street, I thought. At Neely Street, in my other life, I'm always alone but still careful to close them all the way. Except when I'm peeking, that is. Lurking.

Just then I didn't like myself very much.


I sighed. "That's not my name."

"I know."

I looked at her. She inhaled deeply, enjoying her cigarette guiltlessly, as people do in the Land of Ago. "I don't have any inside information, if that's what you're thinking. But it stands to reason. The rest of your past is made up, after all. And I'm glad. I don't like George all that much. It's kind of . . . what's that word you use sometimes? . . . kind of dorky."

"How does Jake suit you?"

"As in Jacob?"


"I like it." She turned to me. "In the Bible, Jacob wrestled an angel. And you're wrestling, too. Aren't you?"

"I suppose I am, but not with an angel." Although Lee Oswald didn't make much of a devil, either. I liked George de Mohren--schildt better for the devil role. In the Bible, Satan's a tempter who makes the offer and then stands aside. I hoped de Mohrenschildt was like that.

Sadie snubbed her cigarette. Her voice was calm, but her eyes were dark. "Are you going to be hurt?"

"I don't know."

"Are you going away? Because if you have to go away, I'm not sure I can stand it. I would have died before I said it when I was there, but Reno was a nightmare. Losing you for good . . ." She shook her head slowly. "No, I'm not sure I could stand that."

"I want to marry you," I said.

"My God," she said softly. "Just when I'm ready to say it'll never happen, Jake-alias-George says right now."

"Not right now, but if the next week goes the way I hope it does . . . will you?"

"Of course. But I do have to ask one teensy question."

"Am I single? Legally single? Is that what you want to know?"

She nodded.

"I am," I said.

She let out a comic sigh and grinned like a kid. Then she sobered. "Can I help you? Let me help you."

The thought turned me cold, and she must have seen it. Her lower lip crept into her mouth. She bit down on it with her teeth. "That bad, then," she said musingly.

"Let's put it this way: I'm currently close to a big machine full of sharp teeth, and it's running full speed. I won't allow you next to me while I'm monkeying with it."

"When is it?" she asked. "Your . . . I don't know . . . your date with destiny?"

"Still to be determined." I had a feeling that I'd said too much already, but since I'd come this far, I decided to go a little farther. "Something's going to happen this Wednesday night. Something I have to witness. Then I'll decide."

"Is there no way I can help you?"

"I don't think so, honey."

"If it turns out I can-"

"Thanks," I said. "I appreciate that. And you really will marry me?"

"Now that I know your name is Jake? Of course."

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