Discussion: Is 11/22/63 Stephen King’s Best Novel?
I've had a few weeks to ruminate on the conclusion of Stephen King's time travel/JFK assassination novel 11/22/63, and I keep coming back to the same conclusion: King has written no finer novel in his long and prolific career.
I'm saying this as a lifelong King fan. I've read damn near everything he's ever written - I'm short a Bachman book or two, I'm still missing a couple of his short story compilations and I haven't gotten around to Doctor Sleep just yet, but it's safe to say that I'm coming from a place of discernment here.
And I'll be honest: I don't actually want to feel this way. I love horror; I've long maintained that horror is responsible for some of the most brilliant and poignant art ever made. So to prefer one of King's least horrific novels - to actually claim it as his best - feels a bit like treason to me. But there it is.
There's an ease to the writing in 11/22/63. I've never minded the heavy-handed regional dialogue in King's previous works, but the relative absence is noticeable in 11/22/63, and it leaves the book with a comfy naturalism that strengthens and refines his writing. The citizens of Jodie, Texas, and Lisbon Falls, Maine, have their own rhythms and references here, but they never feel like caricatures. They just feel like men and women and kids - like people, in other words.
I've always felt - and argued passionately against dissenters - that King's characters make up the strongest part of his writing, and they're never stronger than in 11/22/63. Okay, Jake could probably be substituted for any number of writers/teachers/everymen in King's novels, but he still feels real. He makes mistakes and falls in love and shows courage, and in between all of that he lives and breathes and moves amidst an endless number of mundanities just like the rest of us. Miz Mimi, Deke Simmons, Harry Dunning, Miz Ellie - I feel as if I know these people. I love them, I fear for them, I want the best for them. I miss them.
And he's managed to make Lee Harvey Oswald and his wife Marina feel like more than ominous names echoing from a newsreel. I've heard from a few readers that the hundred or so pages Jake spends spying on the Oswalds feels like tortuous wheel-spinning, but I never felt like that. I'm fascinated by the way this shadowy figure from our history is actualized on the page here. Oswald doesn't feel like a sinister mastermind but a lucky blemish - an unhappy and poisonous man who brought down a nation's leader through a perfect confluence of events. He is no myth in 11/22/63 - he's a man. Just a weak and mean little man.
And Sadie Dunhill is easily one of the best female characters King has ever written - and that's saying something, considering Susannah Dean, Annie Wilkes, Beverly Marsh, Frannie Goldsmith, Wendy Torrance and Mother Abigail all sprung from his imagination like Venus from the clamshell. Sadie's arc will stay with me for a long time - this woman who has survived a cruel marriage and too many tragedies still barrels ahead with agency and audacity. She is clumsy and naive and still graceful and wise. She's brave and loving and loyal and afraid, and she becomes something more than any of that. As Jake himself says, "My appreciation for her sheer guts continued to go up . . . and it never went down."
The narrative is richly layered, plotted by a master. The thread of the tale loops back over itself again and again without ever becoming tangled. There is a clear path through this circuitous plot, and King - so often given to weightless tangents - never strays. He uses a light touch with the supernatural elements, never forcing a needless explanation for the mechanism behind the time travel portal in Al's Diner. Under the Dome would have benefited from this light touch, but instead we're given a thudding exposition for the dome. In 11/22/63, King trusts that we understand that sometimes, weird things just happen. The explanation can be beyond us without losing the impact of the mystery. In fact, a mired explanation often lessens the impact.
And let's talk about that ending (no spoilers!). Stephen King, love him as I do, has a habit of not sticking the landing. 11/22/63, my friends, sticks the landing. In fact, I can see no other way he could have ended the book: the conclusion feels so beautifully inevitable that it played out fairly closely to the way I predicted it. But seeing the final chapter coming didn't make it any less meaningful. King - and Jake - closed the circle. They closed it with a scene that demonstrates true love like no other narrative decision could. That final chapter is poetry, and like Sadie herself, it will stay with me for a long time.
Am I really saying 11/22/63 is a better book than The Stand? Well, I don't actually know. The Stand is one of my favorite novels of all time; growing up, my summer vacation tradition always began with cracking open that well-worn paperback on the first day after the school year ended. Every summer throughout junior high, high school and well into college, I read The Stand. Could I do that with 11/22/63? If I were 16 and still had the patience to reread thousand-page books dozens of times, yes. I think I could. Am I saying 11/22/63 is better than The Dark Tower, a tale I love so much that I've tattooed a 19 on my wrist? I think it's probably better than any single entry in the series. Am I saying 11/22/63 is better than The Shining or Misery or IT or The Dead Zone?
I guess what I'm saying, what I can't believe I'm saying, is that it very well might be. And at this point in King's career, after decades of delivering dozens of entertaining and moving and brilliant novels (and, okay, some stinkers if we're honest), that's one hell of an achievement.