“1½2/63” by Stephen King; Scribner (849 pages, $35)
“The past is obdurate. It doesn’t want to change.” The past is also a dangerous, fickle place — and woe to anyone who dares alter it. That’s the mantra coursing through “1½2/63,” Stephen King’s mammoth, generous and thrilling novel about a man who travels back in time to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
He is Jake Epping, a divorced, 35-year-old high school English teacher from Lisbon, Maine, who discovers a time-travel portal in the pantry of a neighborhood diner. When he walks through it, Jake is transported five decades into the past. No matter how long he spends there, only two minutes will have elapsed in 2011 when he returns. And each time he makes the trip, time resets, and it’s 11:58 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 9, 1958, again.
Surprisingly, “1½2/63” is the first time-travel novel the prolific King has written, and the author has obviously spent much time contemplating the paradoxes inherent in the genre. But King is more interested in history than he is in “Back to the Future” antics, and although he takes occasional liberties with the facts, readers steeped in the details of the assassination — and the life of Lee Harvey Oswald in particular — will get a rush out of following Jake, who goes by the alias of George Amberson in the past. As George, he spies on Oswald and his wife Marina, even moving into the apartment below theirs at 214 W. Neely St., where the famous photo of Oswald holding a rifle was taken.
First, Jake performs a test run to make sure his actions in 1958 will impact the future. The experiment takes him to the evil capital of King’s Yoknapatawpha: Derry, a town where a clown has been dismembering children and the vibe is one of prevailing evil. The first 250 pages of “1½2/63” form a suspenseful, occasionally horrific mini-novel that will delight fans of King’s magnum opus “It,” capped off by a bittersweet resolution that is a harbinger of what’s to come.
Once Jake is convinced he can alter the course of history, he sets out on his mission, which will require him to spend several years in the past (including a brief stint in Florida derailed by a Cuban bookie with mob ties and a fateful stop in New Orleans that has far-reaching consequences). Eventually, he moves to Texas and begins to plan for his pre-emptive murder of Oswald in 1963.
“Possibly later that April, more likely on the night of the tenth — why wait? — I would kill the husband of Marina ... If you saw a spider scuttering across the floor toward your baby’s crib, you might hesitate. You might even consider trapping it in a bottle and putting it out in the yard so it could go on living its little life. But if you were sure that spider was poisonous? A black widow? In that case, you wouldn’t hesitate. Not if you were sane. You’d put your foot on it and crush it.”
But Jake can’t simply hole up in a hotel room and make a living by placing bets on sporting events to which he knows the outcome. The bulk of “1½2/63” is not comprised of King’s answer to the scenario “What if Kennedy had lived?” nor is the book the glorified “Twilight Zone” episode its premise suggests. “1½2/63” is really King’s ode to his youth (he was 16 when J.F.K. died), a book that recreates the era of sock hops, 10-cent root beers, inescapable cigarette smoke and “the heyday of Jayne Mansfield, (when) full breasts are considered attractive rather than embarrassing” with such affection and detail that you are swept along on a huge wave of nostalgia regardless of your age.
The book doesn’t neglect the dark underbelly of the period — the segregation, the racism, the repression, the hypocrisy, the chauvinism and the nuclear fears. But as Jake grows acclimated to life before cellphones and Google and meets a librarian who becomes the love of his life, “1½2/63” draws you into the lives of ordinary people and their problems with the pull that has always been the secret to King’s success. By the time the eponymous date draws near, and the novel hurtles toward Dealey Plaza and that awful Texas School Book Depository building, you’re more worried about the fate of characters you’ve grown to love than how the world will change if Jake succeeds.