Thursday, November 29, 2012
Living through History
If Thanksgiving hadn’t fallen on November 22 this year, this post would have appeared a week ago, on the 49th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Yes, I’m of the generation that remembers exactly where I was at the time: in my off-campus apartment at college, where the friend I’d planned to spend the afternoon with arrived on my doorstep two hours late, tears streaming down her face as she said, “Oh, Liz, the President is dead!” But this blog isn’t about that.
I’m not a fan of horror—in books, in movies, or on TV—and for many years I avoided the works of Stephen King, about whom all I knew was the erroneous belief that he was just a horror fiction writer. Writing mysteries and hanging out with genre fiction writers over the past ten years corrected that impression. First, I read John Dunning’s wonderful mysteries about the used book business and learned that first editions of King’s early books are highly collectible. Then, I became aware that King is highly respected by other writers, in fact, a writer’s writer, as well as author of what’s considered one of the best books on writing. I also learned that he has written well in a broad variety of genres. Finally, I heard him speak in person, when he was named a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America. I’ve repeated many times his advice to aspiring writers: “Read, read, read; write, write, write; and lose the adverbs.” But I’d still never picked up one of his books until this fall, when I decided to read the novel 11/22/63, about a time traveler from 2011 whose mission is to prevent the Kennedy assassination.
I was born in 1944, just ahead of the boomer babies. For me, “the War” is World War II, and “history” ends (and “the present” begins) at its conclusion. When I hear fiction set in the 1950s or 1960s referred to as historical novels, I get a little wigged out, even though I’m well aware that I’ve lived through more than half a century since I went off to college. What King does with tremendous skill in 11/22/63 is not only to render the texture, the idiom, even the smell of the period from September 1958 (my junior year in high school) to November 1963 (my senior year in college), but to bring to vivid life how different it was from the America we live in now. The book is 842 pages long, so he’s got plenty of time to build up the detail, while never allowing the pace of the story to flag as the reader keeps turning the pages to find out what happens next and empathizes ever more deeply with the engaging protagonist.
Having lived one day at a time through the period that Jake Epping spans by walking a few steps through a figurative “rabbit hole,” there are many ways in which I’ve experienced the changes with which we all live so gradually that I’d never really thought about some of the sharper and more subtle disparities that King’s discerning eye illuminates. Of course, I’d made the broad comparisons. I know there were no computers or cell phones in 1963. We hadn’t sent a man to the moon or a woman to the Supreme Court or what we then called a Negro to the White House. But do I really remember the omnipresent tobacco smoke and the cheerful way advertisers encouraged the public to light up? How about airports, how passengers flapped their tickets at a clerk and then carried their unexamined bags across the tarmac to their planes? How about hospitals, the lack of security and of technology we take for granted? Two characters acquire disfiguring injuries in the book, and the best that cosmetic surgeons can do in 1963 lags far behind the laser treatments available in the 21st century. Nor can a severely injured or comatose patient be monitored via digital screens that graph and beep the difference between a beating heart and one that’s flatlined, as we say in our era. Nor would I have thought I needed Stephen King to remind me of the impact of the women’s movement (in which I myself participated). But he draws attention to the magnitude of the gap between our speech, appearance, expectations, and assumptions then and now.
Here’s a bit of Jake’s first impression of 1958: “Mostly I was just plain freaked....I kept thinking about the ladies in their long dresses and hats, ladies who would be embarrassed to show so much as the edge of a bra strap in public. And the taste of that root beer. How full it had been.”
Now that he’s called my attention to it, I can remember that we used to be greatly embarrassed if a bit of strap or the edge of a slip showed or if a stocking seam was crooked, and how little that matters now. And I guess things tasted better, but I’d have attributed that to my changing relationship with food and the increasing age of my taste buds. In spite of the ubiquitous smoke and a smelly factory or two, King reminds us of an era when air, water, and food both animal and vegetable were cleaner, doors less likely to be locked and guarded, and the human race as a whole more optimistic about the future.