Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Inconvenient Magic: Stephen King in the Real World

Stephen King has made me afraid to go down a flight of basement steps in the dark. I’ll never forget the 1976 Pennsylvania power blackout that interrupted my reading his novel Carrie aloud to my girlfriend: we screamed like children and huddled in bed for an hour before either of could get up the nerve to go looking for flashlight. King has made me pump my fist in vengeful satisfaction, like when the little girl in Firestarter finally started incinerating the bad guys He’s even put me at the edge of my seat – literally; I actually fell off on one occasion … I think it was when the dead cat leapt out of the kitchen cabinet in Pet Sematary.

But his new novel gets the one response he’s never managed to provoke before: it made me cry. No chest heaving sobs or sentimental caterwauling; but I couldn’t deny the bittersweet prickle in the eye as I came to the end of his most recent book, 11/22/63. That’s because the people are real, however fantastical their situation, and the way they reconcile themselves to their bizarre, tragic fate holds an austere beauty that will remain with me long after the book is done. As usual with King, there is a supernatural pretext for the story – in this case time travel. But it’s the people themselves that hold King’s interest now.

The story begins when school teacher Jake Epping finds out about a worm hole in time, incongruously located in the store room, behind the kitchen of an old friend’s diner. Al Templeton has been ducking back into April of 1958 for several years, mostly to get cheap beef from Eisenhower-era butchers. Each time he goes back the past resets itself, so he may have been getting the same beef every time. He feels like he has disproved the Ray Bradbury “butterfly effect”, dramatized in the short story “A Sound of Thunder”, where time travelers kill a Jurassic butterfly and create tiny changes that mutate and metastacize over a few million years, ending up with an almost unrecognizable present day (Someone very much like Newt Gingrich is president ….hmmm).

Al returns to a basically unchanged world each time, renewing his faith in the durability of the space-time continuum; and making him dangerously ambitious. He conceives a plan to prevent the Kennedy assassination. He does massive research – as King did, and learns all about Lee Harvey Oswald and his Russian wife Marina and their dysfunctional family life.

But the deed itself turns out to be intractably difficult. First of all, the worm hole isn’t a gull-wing DeLorean with a handy ‘flux capacitor’; in classic King style, it’s just a hole and it always leads to one place and one time: Lisbon, Falls, Maine, behind the textile mill, in April, 1958. That means there’s a lot of time to kill before the assassination – time enough to figure out whether Oswald really acted alone, or even did the deed at all. Killing an innocent man – or one disposable cell of a giant conspiracy – would be an exercise in futility.

No matter how long you stay in the past, only two minutes go by in the present, so Al hasn’t used much ‘present time’ in his quest. But it has taken years off his real life, years spent in ‘the land of Ago’ -- and on top of that he’s gotten sick. Al is dying and he needs to appoint a deputy.

Jake gets the job.

His first trips orient him to a world where a five cent root beer tastes deliriously wonderful, everyone smokes all the time, and cars still have fins. He also meets the ‘yellow card man’ a mysterious bum who seems to live near the worm hole in 1958, and becomes increasingly unhappy about the sudden appearances of dazed individuals from 2011.

Putting the ‘butterfly theory’ to a more stringent test, Jake decides to stop a gruesome mass murder that wiped out the family of one of his extension students. Harry Dunning, , the limping high-school janitor struggling to earn his GED , described the event in a halting “The moment that changed my life” essay. Harry’s alcoholic father killed Harry’s mother as well as his brother and sister on Halloween night, 1958, leaving Harry with a shattered leg, crippled for life.

Jake figures if he can stop that horror and come back to an intact world, the fabric of reality will be able sustain the rescue of JFK also. Without going into the details, the mission doesn’t work out quite as planned. But reality seems sturdy enough to absorb the tweaking.

So Jake goes back in earnest, with a stash of 1958 money, Al’s notes on Oswald and a cheat sheet of sports results to keep him afloat financially.

He starts out living in Dallas, after a detour to Derry, Maine to improve the results of his last meddling with Harry Dunning’s family, now reset. The side trip to Derry is a little treat for long-time King readers, especially those who feel that It, his 1986 epic, was a masterpiece and a crowning achievement (He spoke of retirement for the first time, after that novel was published). The events chronicled in It take place in the 1980s, when the characters are in their thirties, and also in 1958, when they were kids. The evil in Derry is cyclical and though they fought it to a standstill as children they knew they might have to brace for a rematch someday. One interesting point the book makes is that the gang was actually better equipped to deal with the Grand Guignol nightmares of Derry, Maine as innocent kids than they were as chastened, compromised grown-ups.

Anyway: Jakes arrives in Derry just after the first round, and crosses paths with Richie Tozier and Beverly Marsh, giving us a glimpse of two beloved characters from the earlier novel, as they practice the lindy-hop amid the ruins of a picnic. Jake loves dancing, and gives them a quick lesson. Beverly says there were bad things going on in Derry but that’s all over now: everything is fine.

Like time travelers ourselves, we Stephen King fans know better.

Jake hates Derry, and as it turns out he hates Dallas, too. The Book Depository has an evil brooding look to it – just like something out of a Stephen King novel! One quick glimpse at the photograph that adorns the top of Part Five of the novel confirms that impression: it’s a creepy place.

Jake moves to the nearby town of Jodie, gets a job teaching school and falls in love with the new librarian, Sadie Dunhill. It’s a slow- burning easy-going affair, a friendship that starts with him catching her as she trips (she’s a little clumsy), and kindles into love with a few spins on the dance floor. She’s actually quite graceful, when she looks where she’s going.

And as Jake Epping likes to say: Dancing is life.

ButJake, now calling himself George Amberson, has much more on his mind than romance and the school curriculum. He’s tracing Oswald’s movements, pre-bugging the apartments where the family is going to life, gathering the evidence of a conspiracy and making his decision. I hesitate to ‘spoil’ the plot here, but the simple logic of story-telling does seem to require that George not only attempt to stop the assassination, but also succeed. It’s the natural direction of the narrative; it’s hardly a ‘spoiler’ to suggest that a stream will flow downhill.

It’s the rapids along the way that matter.

George decides to stop Oswald but the past has a kind of resistance to it. The past doesn’t want to be changed. Circumstances confound you as you try to wreak that special havoc, as if reality had its own immune system. Downed trees, flat tires, stalled elevators and more all tangle up the plan as the natural order flexes to protect itself. If anything can go wrong it will: Murphy’s Law applied with a supernatural vengeance.

But it has never been easy to take advantage of the supernatural, in Stephen King’s world. Some Puritan part of him needs to extract a heavy toll for power vision or skill beyond the ordinary. I think of the father in Firestarter, whose modest telepathic powers gave him crippling migraines, or the psychic little boy in The Shining whose mental spark roused a whole hotel’s worth of hibernating spooks. The power to bring back the dead didn’t do the hapless protagonist of Pet Sematary much good, and knowing the future was a kind of brain tumor for Johnny Smith, thw doomed hero of King's last Cssandra-with-a-gun story. Foreknmowledge doesn’t do much for poor George Amberson, either. He makes his long-shot bets, and wins them of course; but they bring him to the attention organized crime and soon he has mobsters chasing him. They actually catch him and the brutal beating they administer almost wipes out his memory.

Sadie, meanwhile has been attacked a disfigured by a crazy ex-husband, but George consoles himself that he might be able to change that by another round trip into the past. At least he can take her with him into the shiny new post-JFK survival future, with no Viet Nam war and possibly no Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King assassinations, where micro laser surgery might heal her face in a way that the crude surgical technologies of the cold war era cannot.

The story narrows down into a cattle chute of almost unbearable suspense, as George and Sadie (She knows who he is by this time, and believes it, and shares his mission) hobble and lurch toward their appointment with a revised destiny. I suppose there are some spoilers here, but I confess I often read the end of books early, just to make the suspense bearable. If you find that habit bizarre, and want your reading untainted, stop here and come back when you’re finished with the book. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of days.

Anyway, if you’re still with me -- they manage to stop the assassination, but Oswald kills Sadie and George makes a long desperate run to Lisbon Falls and the worm hole. To go through, to re-set, to start all over again even if he’ll now be five years older than Sadie: to make everything right. But the crazy old alcoholic is still there, and his yellow card is darkening fast. It turns out his job is to guard the worm hole – he’s from some unimaginable future himself. All these tweaks to the world’s time line have set up clashing harmonic vibrations. There are too many of them. The whole of reality could shatter like the glass in that memorex commercial. George must go to the future, and if it turns out to be as horrific as the yellow card man fears, come back once more just to re-set it all and cut off the vibrations. No second chances, no preventing the JFK assassination or Sadie’s injury – not even a glass of root beer!Just a quick, one day-return ticket to set the world to rights.

He almost refuses: the fabric of reality and the space-time continuum seem pretty abstract compared to the chance of seeing Sadie again, whole and healthy, and all the time they could have together, and the chance of saving her from the crazy ex-husband and making a life with her, even if that life and everything around it is heading off some bizarre string theory cliff that only a physicist could understand.

But here's the problem: he’s seen enough of that future to know it’s anything but abstract, and the blighted hellscape he returns to in the new 2011 leaves no room for doubt. George can’t save Kennedy or Sadie, or even himself – but he has to at least try to save the world.

So he goes back once more, and resets time, and returns to an intact 2011, complete with the Warren Report and the Tet Offensive, 9/11, the Iraq War and everything else. By comparison with the radio-active dystopia his good intentions created, it looks pretty good.

And he goes on the internet and finds out that Sadie is still alive. Eighty years old, after a long accomplished life: an organizer and fighter, a rabble rouser and a hero right to the end, still vigorous, still healthy, now being celebrated as Jodie’s “Citizen of the Century.” But she never married, and now she lives alone.

Giving uip on the past, George travels to Jodie one more time, and finds Sadie at the celebration, and asks her to dance:

In the street, couples are jitterbugging. A few of them are even trying to lindy- hop , but none of them can swing it the way Sadie and I could swing it, back in the day. Not even close.

She takes my hand like a woman in a dream. She is in a dream, and so am I. Like all sweet dreams it will be brief … but brevity makes sweetness, doesn’t it? Yes, I think so. Because when the time is gone you can never get it back.

Party lights hang over the street, yellow and red and green. Sadie stumbles over someone’s chair, but I’m ready for this and I catch her easily by the arm.

“Sorry, clumsy,” she says.

“You always were, Sadie. One of your more endearing traits.”

Before she can ask about that I slip my arm around her waist. She slips hers around mine, still looking up at me. The lights skate across her cheeks and shine in her eyes. We clasp hands, fingers folding together naturally, and for me the years fall away like a coat that’s too heavy and too tight. In that moment, I hope on thing above all others: that she was not too busy to find at least one good man …

She speaks in a voice almost too low to be heard over the music. But I hear her – I always did. “Who are you, George?”

“Someone you knew in another life, honey.”

Then the music takes us, the music rolls away the years and we dance.

And that’s where we leave them

So this is a time travel tale and a thriller and a superb piece of speculative fantasy, but most of all it’s a love story and the message it delivers this: you may not be able change the past without catastrophic results, but you can learn to live with it, and even live happily ever after … however short and uncertain ‘ever after’ might be.

That’s cold comfort on rainy autumn afternoon, but I’ll take it.

I suspect you’ll feel the same way.


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