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Living in the past - 11/22/63'

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New King novel explores the possibilities of changing history

What if the past wasn't as immutable as we believe? What if you could go back and set right a terrible wrong? What if you could change what was, hence changing what is?

Those sorts of 'what ifs?' serve as the basis for Stephen King's latest novel '11/22/63' (Scribner, $35). With that date as the title, it should come as no surprise that the assassination of John F. Kennedy is the central 'what if' of this sprawling, epic story.

Jake Epping is a high school teacher in Lisbon Falls. He's a 35-year-old divorcee, living on his own and slowly becoming more and more jaded with the life that he leads. However, this ordinary guy is thrust into extraordinary circumstances when he receives a cryptic phone call from Al, the owner and operator of Jake's favorite local eatery, the eponymously-titled Al's Diner.

It turns out that there's a reason for Al's incredibly low prices that has nothing to do with the rumor that Al's Famous Fatburger is more of a 'catburger.' You see, Al's Diner hides a secret in the back room - a time portal that emerges in 1958. However, Al's plans include more than just cheap meat - he wants to prevent the assassination of JFK. His plan is to eliminate Lee Harvey Oswald, but only after he can eliminate all doubt that Oswald was the lone gunman.

But cancer has other plans for Al - he's too sick to carry out his plan. So he enlists Jake, a man with no real ties. Of course, the upshot of the portal is that no matter how long you stay in the past, you always return to the present a mere two minutes after you left. But each time you travel into the past, the whole world resets. Any changes you made during your previous visit disappear.

So Jake makes his way into the world of 1958. It's a different planet, packed full of big cars, outdated attitudes and cigarette smoke. Lots of cigarette smoke. We journey along with Jake as he travels from Maine to Florida and eventually to Texas, where he discovers that even a man from the future traveling in the past can find love in the present.

There's so much more to the story than can be described in this limited space - so many wonderful characters, so many well-drawn locales, so many twists and turns, so many 'inside baseball' references to other King works. Frankly, the story is so rich that almost anything revealed could serve as a spoiler.

I'm a longtime freak for the 'what if?' style of storytelling. Alternate history is fertile ground for a gifted storyteller possessed of both a sharp wit and a romantic soul. Stephen King has both in abundance. Simply put, there isn't another novelist out there who has a sense of story anywhere close to King. He is, well the King. He knows when to tap the brakes and when to put the pedal to the metal. The pacing oscillates from leisurely to breakneck and back again with a smoothness that is a hallmark of King's work.

Too often, Stephen King gets painted with the 'horror' brush. Yes, much of his work has its basis in the supernatural or paranormal, but at their respective cores, King's works are about people and how they deal with extraordinary circumstances. In '11/22/63,' time travel is a device and nothing more. The hints of horror are just that - hints. Really, this is the story of one man's discovery that even when tinkering with what has come before, the ends don't always justify the means.

'11/22/63' is a masterful effort from a masterful storyteller. One might think that an author as prolific as King would start to lose his fastball after 50+ books. Truth be told, he's bringing the heat just as hard as he ever has. If you're a fan of King, JFK or just evocative and well-crafted stories, go out and get this book. You might not find a better read this year.

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