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To the Wayback Machine

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Posted: Friday, March 16, 2012 4:07 pm

Time travel ... what's not to love?

The subject has always fascinated me. So, needless to say, when Stephen King took on the daunting task of writing about time travel, falling in love, and the Kennedy assassination, I had no choice but to read it. I've been a Stephen King fan since the 1970s. He's had some hits and misses lately —  and this one is an enormous hit.

It's easy to be skeptical about such a huge and controversial subject. The theories surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy are still making headlines. Much has been written about it and many of us still remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news. It's become part of our culture and will likely forever be shrouded in mystery.

But King takes the subject and spins such a realistic and compelling story that I could not put it down.

Taking the time to develop a believable plot line, the story centers around a humble and slightly damaged school teacher named Jake Epping who is introduced to a portal that will place him at the same time, in the same place — in 1958 — each time he passes through it. While this interests Jake (ya think?), he doesn't really know what to do with this information until he gets some tutoring by the owner of the diner that houses the portal. Terminally ill Al Templeton has been through the 'rabbit hole' many times and knows pretty well how this particular time/space continuum works ... to a point. Al plants in Jake's head a lofty goal to go back to 1958, make himself at home, develop a plan ... and then do away with Lee Harvey Oswald so that President Kennedy doesn't get assassinated, world peace prevails, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Clearly, Al didn't think things through. This doesn't stop Jake from taking the plunge, however, and he sets out to experiment a little with the concept by changing the fate of a few people on a smaller scale. He fixes a couple of past wrongs, and comes back through the portal to find out the results.

These two shakedown cruises offer results that prove the past can be changed without too much fallout. But by taking these steps, we learn that there are indeed consequences to changing the past. And if small changes that affect only a few lives result in a switch in the natural balance of the universe ... what will a huge change that affects the entire nation do?

Good question. And it's well worth the 849 pages to find out.

One thing that the reader can remember about the portal in the diner is that each time our hero comes back through into the present, he can simply reset the past and present by stepping through again. All changes that Jake had implemented reset to their original cause and effect.

This makes for some intriguing and potentially confusing scenarios. But King does a bang-up job of explaining all of the paradoxes. I can't imagine the research and fact-finding that must have gone into this project. He's remarkable at weaving fact and fantasy and inserts enough cool retro references to the '50s and '60s that there's a sweetly nostalgic feel to the the story. We also get to touch base with some old friends from Derry, Maine, after the clown took a powder in "It."

Our schoolteacher eventually embarks on the original mission and we take our time getting to the big finish. In his travels throughout time and the United States, he uses his knowledge of the future to win some bets, get a college degree, teach English, direct a school play, and fall in love. It's the latter that lands him in the most trouble, of course. But you can't help but root for this love affair and all of the friends he makes along the way.

All the while, he does keep his eye on the prize. He follows through with his plan to study Oswald; follow his every move and try to make use of his knowledge of the events as they originally happened. I've never done any research on the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, but King obviously did. And he somehow manages to humanize him in a way that gives us a teensy understanding of what may have made him do the dirty deed. I never felt myself developing empathy for the guy — even Stephen King couldn't have done that — but he gave us a peek into the psyche of a sociopath. And you can't help but feel sorry for his punching bag of a wife who would have been way better off staying in Russia.

King is very clear about his ideas of conspiracy theories. And that's okay. It's his book and his story and I never felt that it was an overtly political piece. What is was, was an intricate patchwork of nostalgia, human nature, social commentary and true love.

And honestly, one of the best books I've read in years.