But let’s start at the beginning. The basic premise is laid out elsewhere, but here’s my take. Somewhere in a small town in Maine there’s a diner. In the storeroom of the diner is one end of a “bubble” in time. Approach it carefully and slowly — move too fast and you go right past it — and you can walk down a staircase to September 1958. A very specific time and date. Mark your spot carefully so you can go back, and when you do it’s just two minutes after you’ve left.
The owner of the diner, Al, has been using it for years. He goes back and buys ground beef from the local supermarket at 1958 prices and brings it back to 2011 where he offers burgers at such a low price that people think they must be made out of stray cats.
Some times he takes a vacation back there. After work he’ll go and spend a week or so in 1958, and when he returns it’s just two minutes (in 2011 time) after he left.
With me so far? So when he gets it into his head that if he sticks around long enough, knowing what he knows, he can make enough money betting on sporting events to keep himself going until November 1963 rolls around and he can stop Lee Harvey Oswald. Imagine the present without him — no Vietnam, Bobby Kennedy stays alive, Martin Luther King stays alive, no Watergate — a present so bright you gotta wear shades.
Unfortunately, he comes down with terminal lung cancer and he can’t make it. He comes back to 2011 (two minutes after he left) and shuts the diner. When the hero of the story (who just had lunch there the previous day) finds him, he’s lost a lot of weight, aged five years, and has gone from a strong healthy man to a terminal patient with days to live, seemingly overnight.
Jake (aka George) is the mainstay of the rest of the book. He’s a teacher in the local GED program and doesn’t have a whole lot going for him. His ex is a drunk, his work is depressing, and his prospects aren’t much better. Al convinces him that he’s the guy to change history.
After a trial run, with results that aren’t entirely satisfactory but give him hope that he can do more, he takes the plunge. Armed with several thousand dollars in pre-1958 bills and a book sheet that will make him thousands (at severe cost), he walks through the portal.
As an aside, there are a couple of fun cameo appearances here. Two of the main characters from “It” show up, practicing the Lindy Hop to a phonograph they’ve set up in a park in Derry, Maine. They talk about Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon — which is plausible since they were on the air together in “Who Do You Trust” in 1958 (the Tonight Show came four years later) — but I don’t know that “Here’s Johnny” was around then. More fun, Dwight Holly drops in from James Ellroy’s “Underworld” trilogy.
But the heart of the book is Jake — under his new name — as a man with 2011 knowledge making his way through 1958-1963 without raising suspicion. He’s got a few questions to answer before he just goes ahead and pops Oswald (who’s living in the Soviet Union at that time anyway), so it’s going to take a few years.
After time spent in Maine and Florida, he works his way to a small town just outside Dallas, where he meets the soul of the book — Sadie. A lovely, tall, blonde librarian at the school where he lands a teaching spot. Jake shows his colors as a great teacher and mentor. He and Sadie fall in love, get engaged even. This is a King novel, so there are some horrible side effects along the way. But no more spoilers than that, please.
As they race towards the date, and the sixth floor corner of the Texas Book Depository, time — which is “obdurant,” as they keep telling us — fights them every step of the way.
And changing the past is desperately costly, and you don’t always get what you pay for.
It turns out that there really are multiple universes, threaded together so that there are many points of intersection — which is where coincidences and hunches come from — but reality can only stand so much tampering. The bigger the change, the more disruption it causes. But unlike some of the less-satisfying conclusions of King’s novels (I’m thinking of the alien children ant-farming at the end of “Under The Dome” here) he’s not going to let the Yellow Card Man do more than simply give a brief explanation of all this.
After a false ending, the novel takes a wonderful turn. It’s poignant, moving, romantic…even lyrical. And for those last few pages tears came to my eyes.
“Like all sweet dreams, it will be brief…but brevity makes sweetness, doesn’t it? Yes, I think so. Because when the time is gone, you can never get it back.”
In the end, it’s not a science fiction novel, or an alternate-history, and certainly not a “Back To The Future” fish-out-of-water story. It’s a story about two star-crossed people who can’t be together, but yet always will be. I suppose I’ve read more than half of King’s work over the years. This is the best yet.