11/22/63 opens with a pretty at-length discussion of watershed moments. I'm not sure if Stephen King is aware of the irony involved here, but in writing a novel about possibly the most watersheddy moment (not a word, don't care) in modern American history, he has actually created a small watershed moment for himself. Granted, I have yet to read his Dark Tower series (I hear the ending is controversial), and I haven't read The Stand because IT LOOKS SCARY, but I think I feel safe in saying that 11/22/63 is good in a way most novels only aspire to be, including some of King's own. It's meaty and full of life, and it indulges in the fantasy of time travel as only a story birthed from the mind of a horror novelist could.
11/22/63, for those of you who haven't heard of it and can't guess it from the title, is about a time-traveling English teacher from the year 2011 who is given the opportunity to prevent the JFK assassination from ever happening (and, the idea goes, thus preventing a bunch of other crappy shit as well). But things get complicated, and our hero Jake ends up spending more time getting to know the 1960s and its people (including a rather great love interest) than he does preparing for his mission to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from taking those three shots from the Texas School Book Depository.But the real showstopper in this story is the atmosphere. King conjures up places and people with ease and grace. His joyful moments are tempered with bitterness and sorrow, and not a little bit of violence. Things in this novel have texture and flavor, and for a novel centered on time travel, it never feels anything less than real. And after all that fantastic build up? He sticks the ending. With the possible exception of the futuristic hell-hole Jake encounters after saving Kennedy, which I felt was a tad extreme (although I could possibly be talked out of this opinion by a strong argument; the universe is after all meant to be imploding), it's an ending that is both emotionally satisfying and completely devastating, in the best way possible. And -- as only the really good ones do -- when you've finished, you can't really imagine it having ever turned out differently.
Perhaps the best praise I could give 11/22/63 is that I can't stop thinking about it, and I now want to discuss it with everyone I've ever met. It felt important while I was reading it, and it still feels important now, hours after I've finished. Stephen King may not be a master wordsmith, but I don't really care. If you spin me a good yarn, I'll sit adoringly at your feet, and King sure as hell knows how to spin a good yarn.