‘A Dreamclock Chiming . . .’

I spent a good portion of last weekend reading Stephen King’s newest novel, 11/22/63. It tells the tale of Jake Epping, a disaffected English teacher from Maine who is given a chance to go back in time and prevent the assassination of President John Kennedy.

I like time travel tales, and I like King, and, caught up in the story, I pushed onward late into the evening Sunday and then early into Monday morning, finally sitting at the dining room table, rereading the last five pages with my eyes more than a little misty. I’ve read almost everything King has ever published. The series about Roland the Gunslinger left me cold, and I’ve not read all of that, nor have I been able to read Duma Key on my first two tries. There may be a few more things I’ve missed, but I’ve read nearly all of King’s substantial output and enjoyed most of it. But 11/22/63 was the first time a Stephen King book made me cry.

Now, I’m a sentimental guy. Lots of stuff can make my eyes leak more than a little bit: songs, movies, novels, memories. But along with the damp eyes early Monday morning, I read the last pages of 11/22/63 shaking my head with some admiration. As the story came to its climax and made its way through its dénouement, I had been baffled how King was going to pull the story to an end that would be acceptable both to readers and to the demands of his tale. I saw several possibilities, some of which would be pleasant but not sufficient to the tale and others that would be good on a critical level but leave me – and most readers, I think – not only unsatisfied but dissatisfied.

I should point out that King’s time-travel mechanism – though it’s never fully explained – has a couple of useful conditions: First, the traveler from our time always emerges into the past at the same time on the same autumn day in 1958, and when he returns to the present, two minutes have gone by here, no matter how long he might have spent in the past. Second, the next time the traveler goes back and emerges in 1958, things are re-set; anything the traveler did in his previous jaunts is erased.

What that entry date means to Jake, of course, is that he’ll have to spend more than five years in the past to get from September 1958 to November 1963. And a man, even when he’s spending his time in an era not his own, lives a life. Things happen. Jake falls in love. And King’s book, as well as being a thriller about a man trying to erase one of the greatest crimes in American history, becomes a meditation on love and responsibility and on the question: Which matters more, individual happiness or the needs of society?

As I said, I was baffled how King was going to pull things together at the end to satisfy the reader and the needs of the story. Once I got there, I re-read the last few pages several times, partly to figure out how he did it but mostly to re-enjoy the great ending of one of his best books.

My favorite passage? It comes when Jake – as a schoolteacher in 1963 small-town Texas – is watching two of his students dance:

For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? . . . A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.

Here’s Eric Bibb with “Dance Me To The End Of Love” – it’s a Bibb original, not the Leonard Cohen tune – from his 2004 album Friends.

Now that we’re here, let’s take our time.
No need to hurry anymore.
There’s no other place I’d rather be,
No other face I’d rather see than yours.
Hold me as only you can do
And dance me to the end of love.
Dance me to the end of love.

I’ll follow you when you want to lead.
You’ll follow me sometimes too.
There’s no other body I’d rather hold.
My heart, soul and body’s been waiting on you.
So hold me as only you can do,
And dance me to the end of love.
Dance me to the end of love.

Erroneous book title corrected after posting.

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