King (Under the Dome, 2009, etc.) adds counterfactual historian to his list of occupations.
Well, not exactly: The author is really turning in a sturdy, customarily massive exercise in time travel that just happens to involve the possibility of altering history. Didn’t Star Trek tell us not to do that? Yes, but no matter: Up in his beloved Maine, which he celebrates eloquently here (“For the first time since I’d topped that rise on Route 7 and saw Dery hulking on the west bank of the Kenduskeag, I was happy”), King follows his own rules. In this romp, Jake Epping, a high-school English teacher (vintage King, that detail), slowly comes to see the opportunity to alter the fate of a friend who, in one reality, is hale and hearty but in another dying of cancer, no thanks to a lifetime of puffing unfiltered cigarettes. Epping discovers a time portal tucked away in a storeroom—don’t ask why there—and zips back to 1958, where not just his friend but practically everyone including the family pets smokes: “I unrolled my window to get away from the cigarette smog a little and watched a different world roll by.” A different world indeed: In this one, Jake, a sort of sad sack back in Reality 1, finds love and a new identity in Reality 2. Not just that, but he now sees an opportunity to unmake the past by inserting himself into some ugly business involving Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, various representatives of the military-industrial-intelligence complex and JFK in Dallas in the fall of 1963. It would be spoiling things to reveal how things turn out; suffice it to say that any change in Reality 2 will produce a change in Reality 1, not to mention that Oswald may have been a patsy, just as he claimed—or maybe not. King’s vision of one outcome of the Kennedy assassination plot reminds us of what might have been—that is, almost certainly a better present than the one in which we’re all actually living. “If you want to know what political extremism can lead to,” warns King in an afterword, “look at the Zapruder film.”
Though his scenarios aren’t always plausible in strictest terms, King’s imagination, as always, yields a most satisfying yarn.