Monday, January 30, 2012

“Ten Thousand Saints” Combines The Vivid With The Gritty In A Fascinating Tale Of a Subculture

“All his life, he thought he wanted to know the face of the woman who had given birth to him, but a single picture, a name -- it would be too much. It was the not knowing that protected him, the blank page that allowed him to believe she might be anyone, or might not exist at all. He could have been raised by wolves. He could be the son of God or a test tube miracle or for all he knew he could have fallen to Earth with the snow from the sky.”

“Even when the baby was out of her ... she kept her eyes closed tight. She knew how easy it is to fall in love.”

Though it had a couple of holes, Eleanor Henderson’s fascinating look at 1980s New York and the straight edge movement made “Ten Thousand Saints” a haunting, compelling read.

Early on, Henderson centers in Vermont, on Teddy, who dies of an overdose early on (“No foul play had taken place, just an accumulation of poor choices.”), and Jude, Teddy’s best friend and a rampant drug user (“He was good at nothing if not faking sobriety.”). Later, we are introduced to Johnny, Teddy’s stepbrother and underground tattoo artist/rock star in New York City; Eliza, Jude’s sort-of stepsister and a 16-year-old coke abuser who becomes pregnant with Teddy's child after a one-minute stand (“Now Teddy and Jude had left her to fend for herself, and she was fending. She was a girl who knew how to fend.” ); and Les, Jude’s separated stepfather who is dating Jude’s mother. Needless to say, there are a lot of dots to be connected here and a lot of pieces to puzzle out.

“They liked to conceive of their situations in terms they were familiar with. Punk bands, musicals, young adult movies. Jude and Johnny were the Greasers fleeing the Socs, and Eliza was Cherry Valance, the girl from the right side of the tracks. They were the Runaways, betrayed by their parents, only they’d stitched their way into and out of so many states it was hard to keep track of which one they were running from.”

According to Henderson, the story was inspired by her husband’s experiences in the New York of the late 1980s. Like many readers I’m sure, I had to question the inherent difficulties in a woman writing about the issues facing a series of teenage boys a quarter of a century ago (not to mention that Eleanor Henderson is a certified old-lady name). However, she did an admirable job interweaving the characters’ backgrounds into the story, and even though it felt forced in some ways, it is an admittedly difficult balance to achieve.

The tale also jumps around chronologically, which can be tough to follow, though the prose itself is full of emotion, vivid images and moments. Henderson said she originally had written the entire story from Jude’s perspective, though she changed that dramatically in the revisions to incorporate different perspectives, narratives and life experiences.

Henderson depicts a scary New York City -- especially the Alphabet City area -- painting the Lower East Side straight-edge scene of the late 1980s, including widespread drug abuse, the specter of AIDS and other issues. While she does a laudible job with setting and atmosphere, I do feel the entire punk-rock aspect of the novel felt forced, though it was obviously integral to the storyline.

“Fuck millionaires, fuck managers. This was 100 percent grassroots -- of the people, by the people, for the people. This was jump off a stage and know ten guys will catch you. This was fuck your dreams and make your destiny.”

There were certainly some memorable scenes described, including the subway laser tag scene, Jude tripping on ‘shrooms in a Buddhist temple, and the road-trip details and minutiae. [On a side note, I found it humorous that a minor character sustained multiple serious injuries after being jumped, yet was still given a football scholarship to Duke even while he was using a cane. Apparently, even in fiction writing, the Blue Devils are a punchline in football!]

In terms of character building, the novel could have been alternatively titled as “Jude’s Journey,” though the story expands to include more of Eliza as it goes along. I think the story suffers from relegating Eliza to the background a lot, turning her into a bit player, to which we have too scant access to her feelings and emotions.

“Around boys she was herself, she could relax; she had nothing to win but them ... She wasn’t young. She didn’t want to save anyone; she wasn’t in love with other people’s suffering. She wanted to be consumed by it, eaten alive.”

“She had wanted to make something happen; she had asked for heartbreak and she’d gotten it. And it was bigger than anything in her life. She wanted to forget Teddy, and she wanted something to remember him by.”

I also found Les to be hysterical, and personally, thought the story could have used a bit more of his influence, especially near the end ( “... whose religious training was the sum of one semester of biblical literature and thirty years of crossword puzzles.”). Additionally, the casual way that Johnny was accorded rock-star status was a little far-fetched and somewhat difficult to accept. Unfortunately, I found the characters to be mostly unlikeable, which I thought detracted somewhat from the ability to become fully immersed in the story.

Though a triangle of Johnny-Jude-Eliza is described, it is truly a quadrangle, with each vying to maintain or preserve a piece of Teddy. It’s also a story about interpersonal relationships, about how people can feel drawn and indebted to more than one person at a time -- not to mention the intricate webwork that describes how different people relate to each other -- and about how those feelings can lead to difficult choices. And sometimes those relationships are with idealized memories and wistful regrets instead of people. But I don’t think we’re ever privy enough to Johnny’s -- or Eliza’s -- true feelings, which makes it difficult to reinforce those worthwhile messages.

“The baby was already an angel, Teddy’s golden-winged redemption, and now maybe it would be Johnny’s, too.”

“Johnny felt the spirits of the city howling for his attention—not the dead but the waiting to die and the waiting to be born.”

“It was as though Johnny and Jude had been engaged in a staring contest, each daring the other to speak Teddy’s name first, and even thought it meant he would lose, Jude was desperate to blink.”

“They had both wanted to be the one who knew Teddy best, they had both been Teddy for each other, and now the make-believe had come to an end.”

A key character comes out of the closet halfway through the book, adding intrigue to a significant sexual dynamic in the tale -- with AIDS overhanging this vital plot turn. I also think Jude’s sexuality was questionable throughout much of the novel, until his dynamic with Eliza emerges (too late, in my opinion). When it finally comes to the surface, it is depicted beautifully, with the tentative, fumbling, nervous, fluttering feelings that those situations can evoke in the adolescents in all of us.

“‘It’s a nice face,’ she said.
“Nice. It was so much more than nice, but she couldn’t think of a better word. You didn’t call a boy beautiful, not a boy who was your husband’s best friend, not a boy who didn’t like girls and who went around picking fights and who you really did think was beautiful.”

“He deserved her, and Johnny didn’t. This had been his belief all along, but he had lived with his discontentment uneasily; he’d felt unentitled to it. Now his desire flamed up in him, fully formed, righteous; he held a ticket; he had the burden of proof ...”

“Kissing her had been like playing a song ... The kiss had steps, phases—a bridge, a chorus, an appetizer, something to cleanse the palate. It had a shape, a momentum ...”

Eventually, Jude leaves his abuses behind to embrace the clean lifestyle of straight edge, following in Johnny’s footsteps and becoming what Les describes as a “turbulent little reverend.” I had an issue with the transition of the group from the peaceful, keep-to-yourself straight-edge movement toward a violent clique bent on pressing their morality onto abusers. I felt Henderson mentioned this more in passing, with the thought process unexplained, and this transition, to me, was too significant to be handled so subtly. After all, when you’re discussing shooting drunks with BB guns, I don’t think there’s a lot of room to be subtle as an author.

“He didn’t want to be on the run anymore ... He wanted things to be the way they used to be ... He wanted to need no one.”

“Jude saw himself now for what he was: inessential. He was the tissue that bound the essential members together -- Teddy, Johnny, Eliza, those who were joined by blood or by sex. Jude was joined to no one by neither. He was beyond rescue.”

“He was jealous of everyone who knew how they wanted to be loved.”

The story regains its footing near the end, with a plot twist where Teddy’s father is found, he turns out to be a lawyer and is convinced to go after Eliza’s fitness as a mother. Considering how easy it becomes to forgot how young all the characters really are, it is refreshing when, at the end, we see that the are finally accorded some semblance of normalcy and a return to youth. As if some recognition that trading Teddy’s memory for Teddy’s offspring would never truly honor Teddy in the way they had so foolishly hoped.

“But what then to do with this immense relief, this joy rolling out like a carpet before him, the surprise gift of their youth returned to their hands?
“He wondered if his own birth mother, unburdened by him, went on to live her life and kiss boys.”

“ ... cradling the ashes awkwardly in his arms. They weighed perhaps as much as a newborn baby, and he looked down at them with the same terror and awe with which a new father might look at his child, holding it for the first time.”

Though many will be unhappy with all of the unanswered questions (what happened to Johnny -- did he die in San Francisco? Who was Jude’s unnamed wife -- was it Eliza? If not, what became of Eliza? How long did they stay in the straight-edge movement?), to me, the strong conclusion salvaged some earlier dragging parts of the tale.

All in all, I felt “Ten Thousand Saints” was a great tale, though not a great story. Being that that likely doesn’t make much sense, I’ll add that I felt there were a lot of clever and evocative elements in play, making for a more-than-worthwhile story to tell. However, I felt the plot drifted a bit too much, with too little sharing of how the main characters truly feel about each other.

Of course, I’ve pointed out what I see are some flaws. But to be fair, Henderson employs some really beautiful, mature writing, and eminently quotable turns of phrase. The result is an evocative, humorous novel, a coming-of-age tale wrapped in a series of love stories, fraught with real emotion ... balanced by harsh reality.

“ ... despite himself, the first thing he did was hunt for evidence of the baby’s genes, the science project -- blue and yellow make green -- at which no one in the history of the world has ever failed to be amazed.”

Friday, January 27, 2012

Limerick Friday LXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXI: The ‘Fins Give Yet Another Coach A Shot, Plus SEAL Team 6—We’re Not Worthy

A series of mistakes that’s egregious
Bad decisions continuously besiege us
So let’s try it one more time
To turn it around on a dime
You’re up, Philbin (not Regis)

The wins can’t be denied
That’s why Happy Valley cried
By covering for his pedophile friend
A legend met a controversial end
The contradictions of JoePa won’t subside

A fat and outraged Newt
Mad that debate crowds put on mute
How else can he chase down Mitt
In the race of bullshit vs. bullshit
It’s the Average Joe who gets the boot

A new coach has been celebrated
But a blowout to a rival very hated
Looked like the same ol’ Pack
And rumors of them being back
Have been greatly exaggerated

In times of confusion and hate
We look for hope to celebrate
So here comes SEAL Team 6
Saving citizens and killing pricks
True heroes—one thing not up for debate

Last time

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Monday, January 23, 2012

Ferrell Lets Down Comedic Guard In Surprising “Everything Must Go”

Straddling the line between depressing and comedic can be a tough task, but “Everything Must Go” finds this balance in extraordinary fashion. Adapted from a short story by Raymond Carver, this was the first script for Dan Rush, who wrote and directed this film in a stunning debut. Perhaps the best way to describe this movie is that it sneaks up on you ... and it is so much more than the sum of its parts.

Rush introduces us to Nick Halsey, an alcoholic with marital problems, a budding mid-life crisis and a defeated mindset. After being fired after 16 years at the same company (the dude from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” Glenn Howerton, is perfect as Ferrell’s smarmy boss), he receives a knife as a severance package -- with somewhat predictable results. Then Nick decides to live on his front lawn after being locked out of his house by his wife, putting his life -- populated by what Rush called “a history of aborted enthusiasms” -- out on the front lawn, for all to judge and value.

He endures gut punch after gut punch to open the film, to the point where we wonder just how much he’s going to be able to take. The capper comes when he learns that his AA sponsor, a cop who had become something of a friend, is sleeping with his estranged wife (who is never shown, by design, I believe). As a viewer, I’m thinking, “Man, who can you trust if you can’t trust your sponsor?!”

He spends much of the film trying to find whatever it is that someone once saw or said that was special in him. Upon tracking down a former classmate (Laura Dern) to ask why she wrote something nice about him in his yearbook, she says, “You have a good heart. That doesn’t change.”

He finds support and even friends in the unlikeliest of places. First, in an aimless black kid named Kenny (the scene-stealing Christopher Jordan Wallace) who teams up with him. Kenny’s character was likened to Yoda by Ferrell, who said that Kenny served as a check and balance to Nick’s actions.

Then, Nick develops an unlikely bond with a beautiful, yet neglected, new neighbor who happens to be pregnant. His friendship with Samantha (played in an understated, absorbing way by Rebecca Hall) reinforces the film’s message about what makes us strangers and what could help us bridge that divide to friends. The message is both deep and sad -- it asks something of the viewer, which can make it difficult to watch. It touches on the bonds we form, sometimes unbelievably quickly, due to a quiet desperation.

At the end, as sunlight begins to peak out from behind the clouds, Samantha hands Nick a Polaroid, with a simple inscription: “Everything is not yet lost.” The beauty and poignancy of that moment and that scene -- which serve as a symbolic comment on the transitory, fleeting nature of frozen images -- make it a wonderful summation of the film itself.

Even at rock bottom, Ferrell is endearing and pitiable. A scene where he’s begging for beers outside a convenience store is hard to look at, yet even in the darkest times, there is something universal in Nick that draws us to him. And at the end, when the charges behind his dismissal prove to be baseless, we are reaffirmed in the lead character’s character.

Rush (who made a wise choice in deleting a scene involving Nick and a hooker) had determined that the lead role required likeability in order to pull the film together, so he made a bold casting choice in tabbing Ferrell as the vulnerable everyman. For his part, Ferrell has said he was drawn to the premise of the movie as a departure for him, having never been tasked with guiding an emotionally driven film. He felt that the universality and sympathy made for a great story, yet he questioned his ability to act it. Ferrell was attracted to the test as the next step from comedy to “Stranger Than Fiction” to this one. Like Jim Carrey’s “Truman Show,” Ferrell wondered whether he could carry a vehicle such as this one.

The answer is a redefining, resounding yes, as the gambles by both Rush and Ferrell paid off with a memorable, moving film.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Limerick Friday LXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX: Roy Abandons His Scrubs, Plus Marky Mark Lives In His Own ‘Roid-Fueled Action Movie

Another douchebag move for Roy
He quit as a self-preservation ploy
His walk-ons, he sold out
Now what’s he lying about
Attacking the media? Oh joy ...

Celeb-crazy Steve Ross
Makes quite a shitty team boss
Chose a Parcells retread cockroach
Over a mustachioed proven coach
Now sit back and watch loss after loss

An ongoing GOP epic fail
Perry is the latest to bail
If these are the best candidates
We deserve our horrific fates
All of them should prolly be in jail

On Twitter, you must pick and choose
Too many without guile or clues
They shoot for the shock and wow
A sign of the apocalypse now
Is Rob Lowe breaking NFL news

Coming off as one of many Hollywood pricks
9/11, Marky Mark said he would’ve put the nix
‘Roids gives him good vibrations
Without a hint of self-deprecation
Done one too many shitty action flicks

Last time

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Deep Thoughts By No-Look McFadden: Episode 49

It’s not fair to truly say goodbye to 2011 without checking out the year’s 50 funniest Tweets. #imjustsayin #hashtag

“Star Wars” behind the scenes. Princess Leia sunbathing. Yes. That is happening. (This message is approved by 8-year-old me.)

Honest question: Has UNC supplanted Duke as the floppingest hoops team in the country?

During the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Matt Lauer referred to Beantown’s hockey team as the “Boston Brewers.” Just a regular guy, him.

Every time Panthers wideout Steve Smith comes close to rehabbing his image, he does something punk as shit and has to start all over again. This time, he inexplicably started screaming at Saints coach Sean Payton during a game. All class, all the time.

I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty certain that the face-palm movement started with Ralphie’s dad on “Christmas Story.”

A quick look at fascinating, clever and creative street art. Adds an element of intrigue to your brisk stroll to the market for toilet paper.

The National Geographic photography contest never disappoints, so these are 45 insane pictures of the world, as well as some of their contest winners.

This week in doppelgangers: Torrey Smith of the Baltimore Ravens and Harold Perrineau, who played Michael from “Lost.”

Imagining a Gingrich presidency. Um, yikes. And this is guy is on Gingrich’s side!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Limerick Friday LXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXIX: Jefferson, Tigers Choke Away Title Shot, Plus Campaigning Keeps Reaching New Lows

The Mad Hatter lived up to his name
In the national title game
Let Jefferson drag the team down
Let Prick Saban walk away with the crown
Yo Les -- sometimes mad just means insane

Sparano is off to join Rex
On Miami, he put a hex
Now will Fisher leave the Fins at the altar
So I can see another coaching search falter?
Both the ‘Fins and Jets are freaking wrecks

Gottfried’s honeymoon at an abrupt end
Home blowout to GT hard to defend
Refs hate his jacket move
Still has a lot to prove
Of State’s problems, which can he mend?

Added “Walked Dead” to the mix
Zombies chase Georgia hicks
Gruesome most of the time
Storylines sometimes sublime
But can the plot keep adding new tricks?

The greatest worst reality show
A debate for the ignorant and slow
That’s the state of the GOP
Yet so many still can’t see
How low can the lowest common denominator go?

Last time

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"George": An Inspired Movie Concept

Finally righting the wrong that is the lack of a movie about George Costanza.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Scooter & Hum’s Top Five Books of the Year 2011

We’re celebrating our fifth year of the Scooties here on Scooter & Hum, and it’s that time of year where the challenge of picking the best books I’ve read this year weighs on me. I didn’t get through as many this year as I would’ve liked, mostly because a couple of the books I chose were lengthy and/or difficult to work through.

All that being said, it was another year that included some stellar reads, as you’ll see below ...

#1: “Ham on Rye,” by Charles Bukowski

What I Wrote Then:

Distilled all the way down, this is essentially a book about getting hit so many times that you’re numb physically, mentally, literally and figuratively—yet you never give up your willingness to keep getting back up after falling down. If you can get past the brutal, stark harshness of it all, you may even find, as I did, a belief that “Ham on Rye” deserves perhaps a higher stature in the catalogues of American literature.

What I Say Now:
Bukowski’s searing, volcanic depiction of La-La Land in the height of the Depression was stunning in its hard-charging, unflinching tone. Alternately hysterical, depressing and morose, “Ham on Rye” captivated with its unwillingness to bend to convention and its limit-testing energy.

Read My Review

Passage to Remember:
“Drink was the only thing that kept a man from feeling forever stunned and useless. Everything else just kept picking and picking, hacking away. And nothing was interesting, nothing. The people were restrictive and careful, all alike. And I’ve got to live with these fuckers for the rest of my life, I thought.”

#2: “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett
What I Wrote Then:
... “The Help” is a memorable, brave work, a promising and head-turning debut for Stockett. No matter where you’re from and what you believe about civil rights, it will forever change the way you look at racial relationships within not only the South, but the entire country. And for a first-time novelist, that is a truly, truly staggering accomplishment.

What I Say Now:
Though “The Help” featured a few holes, the compelling nature of the tale more than made up for the shortcomings in the execution. The result was a truly unforgettable commentary on -- and reminder of -- Southern culture from a time not as long ago as many of us would like to think.

Read My Review

Passage to Remember:

“I look deep into her rich brown eyes and she look into mine. Law, she got old-soul eyes, like she done lived a thousand years. And I swear I see, down inside, the woman she gone grow up to be. A flash from the future. She is tall and straight. She is proud. She got a better haircut. And she is remembering the words I put in her head. Remembering as a full-grown woman.
“And then she say it, just like I need her to. ‘You is kind,’ she say, ‘you is smart. You is important.’”

#3: “Suttree,” by Cormac McCarthy

What I Wrote Then:

In the spirit of honesty, I have to share that this was the least favorite of the McCarthy books I’ve read thus far, paling in comparison to “The Road” and “Blood Meridian.” That being said, I appreciated the different style of writing, the ability to shift prose, a quality I’ve long admired in proven, brilliant authors. I was glad to see McCarthy’s willingness to incorporate humor into his writing, which he pulled off well.

And though I do slot this piece behind some of the iconic works of McCarthy’s stellar career, it comfortably resides as yet another tremendous example of novel writing from an American treasure.

What I Say Now:
The difficulty in translating and interpreting this piece, combined with the difficult subject matter of scrutinizing the underbelly of poor white trash, led to the tough decision to put a McCarthy book in third. That being said, however, “Suttree” was an inspired and memorable read.

Read My Review

Passage to Remember:
“She was shouting at him some half drunken imprecations, all he could make out was his name. He seemed to have heard it all before and he kept on going.”

#4: “Ghosts of Belfast,” by Stuart Neville

What I Wrote Then:

With his gift for engrossing storytelling, versatile prose style, strong character-building and affinity for the region, Neville has ascended to a deserved lofty stature among Irish crime novelists ... I look forward to seeing Neville’s undoubted improvement in certain aspects as I follow his burgeoning career and potentially limitless success.

What I Say Now:
After a searing start, “Ghosts of Belfast” petered out a bit toward a somewhat predictable end. However, the overall tale and Neville’s ability to hypnotize the reader made it one of my favorite books of the year.

Read My Review
Passage to Remember:
“Fegan battled within himself, part of him wanting to stay hidden, part of him needing to show itself.
“He surrendered.”

#5: “Full Dark, No Stars,” by Stephen King

What I Wrote Then:

In this book about secrets and the lengths folks will go to to hide them, to come to terms with a life of living with them, King has constructed a piece not for the faint of heart. But in his carefully crafted characters and environments, he painstakingly endeavors to write about emotion more than ever -- about the emotions in these people, and yes, even the ones in you.

So be brave … cast whatever light you can muster into the dark and shadows spread by King. Then revel in a genius at work in the medium he first mastered, then owned … and now redefined.

What I Say Now:
The harsh, unflinching darkness of “Full Dark, No Stars” was nearly enough to overwhelm the reader, but the veteran King reader knew there would be a payoff. No one does the short-story medium like King, and this collection only served as a chilling reminder of that truth.

Read My Review

Passage to Remember:
“Here’s something else I believe: if you’re going into a very dark place … then you should take a bright light, and shine it on everything. If you don’t want to see, why in God’s name would you dare the dark at all?” ... “When it came to the dark fuckery of the human heart, there seemed to be no limit.”

Honorable Mention: “11/22/63,” by Stephen King (review)I had to omit this one from the list because I didn’t think it was quite fair to have multiple King choices in the top five, but I couldn’t go without at least mentioning this book. I think if I hadn’t finished it so close to the end of the year that it would have ended up higher on this list, but I haven’t had enough time to complete digest its weight and impact. But I certainly thought it was tremendous enough to warrant inclusion here.

Editor’s Note:
Among the “Others” category: “Lost Symbol,” by Dan Brown; “Soul Pancake,” by Rainn Wilson; “Herman Wouk is Still Alive,” by Stephen King; “Take Your Eye Off the Ball,” by Pat Kirwan

Friday, January 06, 2012

Limerick Friday LXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXVIII: The OBX Comes Through Yet Again, Plus Is It Going To Be Your Year?

An Eve comprised of laughs and beers
A visit to Hatteras on New Year’s
When I hit the pillow with my head
My thoughts are often of Nags Head
A place full of memories and happy tears

Jason Taylor has played his last
Never my fave in the past
As Fins made me hit the bottle
He wanted only to be a model
But he could rack up sacks pretty fast

Either love it or hate it
The critics highly rate it
Trying out “Walking Dead”
And searching my head
For exactly what separates it

A fat coach with a mouth that won’t shut
A diva receiver who acts like a butt
A QB who can’t complete a pass
A franchise that comes off as an ass
A fraud as big as Rex Ryan’s gut

Revisit that project you shelved
Find a way to better yourselves
More writing and reading for some
For others, stop being a lazy bum
These resolutions are 2012’s

Last time

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Ah, So That Explains It, Eh "Beast"?

Considering he led the league in dropped balls, including at least seven touchdown passes, this one-armed Brandon Marshall figurine I spotted seemed more than a little apropos.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Some Need To Live, Some Need To Die, Some Even Need To Learn To Cry: King Alters The Past With “11/22/63”

“‘Manchester said that if you put the murdered president on one side of a scale and Oswald -- the wretched waif -- on the other, it didn’t balance. No way did it balance. If you wanted to give Kennedy’s death some meaning, you’d have to add something heavier. Which explains the proliferation of conspiracy theories.’”

“There were no violins or warning bells when I pulled the janitor’s theme off the top of the stack and set it before me, no sense that my little life was about to change. But we never know, do we? Life turns on a dime.”

“He leaned forward, his eyes not just bright; they were blazing.
‘You can change history, Jake. Do you understand that?
John Kennedy can live.’”

Leave it to Stephen King to envision a scenario where John F. Kennedy escapes Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet to live out his legacy. And leave it to Stephen King to discover that that post-JFK world would be even shittier than the one we’re living now.

And while we’re at it, leave Stephen King to appoint a man who doesn’t know how to cry to handle the mission of saving JFK. Because all of that and more are what comprise King’s latest work, “11/22/63.”

King employs the premise of a depressed small-town writer (Jake Epping) fulfilling a dying diner owner’s wish by walking out of a mobile home and emerging 50 years in the past, with one vital task in front of him. What ensues brings up all kinds of questions about the butterfly effect, time envisioned as strings in a spider web, how decisions reverberate through the eons and how sometimes love doesn’t stop to ask what year you’re from.

“‘Because this matters, Jake. As far as I’m concerned, it matters more than anything else. If you ever wanted to change the world, this is your chance. Save Kennedy, save his brother. Save Martin Luther King. Stop the race riots. Stop Vietnam, maybe.’ He leaned forward. ‘Get rid of one wretched waif, buddy, and you could save millions of lives.’”

Two things jumped out at me in reviewing the book after reading it: it took him nearly two years to write, which is a long time for King. And that this was a book 40 years in the making, as he initially thought of the project that many years ago, but felt he wasn’t experienced or accomplished enough as a writer to do the work justice.

For a story that reads like a history book at times, King, as always, finds a way to make it completely engrossing. One technique that King uses often is to advance the plot through the use of song lyrics that are tied to specific memories and feelings. Another is his sudden introduction of revelations from the future, in a way that shocks the reader out of any comfort level he or she may be having with the pace and tone of the book. Cross-referencing characters from his pantheon of books is another cherished King tactic, so the resonances of “It” were well-placed and timely -- though the mention of Bevvie and Richie had me scrambling for a Stephen King encyclopedia I had.

The first-person choice was another wise one by King, who allowed the reader to experience America from a half-century ago through the perspective of Jake. However, the book began with a lot of talk about a janitor, which makes the reader a bit curious as to what is role in the coming tale will be, but King eventually explains his role and importance as a corollary to the main story.

The finality of Jake’s choice to embrace this epic challenge leaves him to traverse the country while making a number of key stops along the way. As a North Carolina native, it was mildly disappointing that the only reference to the state was to point out its pervasive racism, through a story about a path behind a gas station lined with poison ivy for coloreds to use as their bathroom. Also, Jake’s brief stay in Sunset Point, Florida, reminded me some of the storyline of King’s “Duma Key.”

On the down side, there were times when I felt like King did a poor job of representing how much time had passed (pun intended) on Jake’s third visit to the past; it seemed as if all of a sudden, the tale had leapt ahead two years. But I guess since the sole reason for Jake’s existence in that parallel time lay five years in the future, it became difficult for King to document the passage of time, since Jake was purposely trying to waste the time and pass the days, without jarring the future too much.

“Because the past isn’t just obdurate; it’s in harmony with both itself and the future.”

“Coincidences happen, but I’ve come to believe they are actually quite rare. Something is at work, okay? Somewhere in the universe (or behind it), a great machine is ticking and turning its fabulous gears.”

As well, King has always struggled when writing women; frankly, he doesn’t do it very well and never has. He also has a tendency to overplay the hilarity of his humor, which only makes the dialogue a bit more awkward at times. Along these lines, I found Jake’s courtship of Sadie both hokey and beautiful (“She filled a large amount of space in a very nice way ...”). That Jake eventually drew Sadie into his problems was inevitable, though still a bit surprising. And of course, there wouldn’t have been much of a payoff if all had gone as planned for Jake.

And finally, though I’m rarely critical of King’s choices, I took issue with his decision to include an addendum about a “last dance” between Sadie and Jake. I felt it cheapened the ending quite a bit, and it was a bit difficult to digest, as it seemed out of character for King to go that route. The addendum allowed him to hedge his bets a little bit with the sacrifice that Jake made -- knowingly or not -- and I didn’t think that was fair to what Jake went through in 1958, in 1963, in 2011 or in any of the ensuing years.

As usual, those quibbles and discrepancies pale in comparison to the overwhelmingly vivid and involving story -- and world -- that King is able to painstakingly (though easily, if that makes sense) construct for us. King is able to evoke a surprising level of emotion through Jake’s second life as a schoolteacher, and the bonds he forms with his students and the community. There were some real touching moments related to the play he directed, and especially the football player, Mike Coslaw, that he helped turn into an acting version of a diamond in the rough. And of course, King, as usual, comes through at the end, evoking a hyper-intensity that makes you feel as if you’re in it with Jake and Sadie, racing the clock to stop an event that actually already happened.

“For a moment, everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.”

The novel was well-researched by King (he said he read a stack of books and articles “almost as tall as I am”), which became very evident through the minutiae and exquisite detailing he exhibited. The what-if nature of his affinity for JFK bled through, and one can almost tell he was relieved that, at the end of his research, he was “ninety-eight percent, maybe even ninety-nine” convinced that Oswald acted alone.

I felt like the storyline about the betting goons tracking Jake down seemed a trifle over the top, but the resulting coma dream state was well-handled—and even lends itself to the cinematic format. In fact, like many King works, “11/22/63” is very easy to envision as a movie -- and a really good one. Along similar cinematic lines, in the alternate future created by Jake’s changing of the past, the instability of the earth’s crust is referenced at one point, similar to the movie “2012” (not John Cusack’s finest day); the resulting landscape brought up elements of “Children of Men.

But purely on the page, it’s a thinking man’s novel. Because at its core, “11/22/63” turned out to be a love story; but also -- and not in an unrelated way -- about teaching a man to weep, not for the future (like Ferris Bueller’s waiter), but for the past as well as a lost present. Though its very existence and rules are confusing, the wormhole for Jake represents not only a purpose to his life, but also an escape hatch out of a mundane, broken present. And the more times that Jake heads into the past, we see his confidence growing, as well as his assertiveness as a person; in fact, we see him growing as a person throughout.

“But I believe in love, you know; love is a uniquely portable magic. I don’t think it’s in the stars, but I do believe that blood calls to blood and mind calls to mind and heart to heart.”

That growth results in Jake learning how to cry by the end. The theme of the man who can’t cry is omnipresent, but not pervasive. It is brought up again at a key moment near the end, in a way that makes us feel that the world threw as much as possible at this guy to see just what it would take to bring tears.

“ ... I will lay my wet face on the pillow and pray to a God I can’t quite believe in to send my Sadie some good angel so she can live. And love. And dance.
“Goodbye, Sadie.
“You never knew me, but I love you, honey.”

And even through the prism of Jake’s tears, we develop a melancholy connection and wistful desire for the America of 50 years ago, despite what that might mean and what it might cost. That may be King’s biggest achievement in “11/22/63” -- the acknowledgement of what we might be willing to give up in exchange for a few fleeting, dancing moments in a world that finally, briefly harmonizes itself.

“Life turns on a dime. Sometimes toward us, but more often it spins away, flirting and flashing as it goes: so long, honey, it was good while it lasted, wasn’t it?”

“Home is watching the moon rise over the open, sleeping land and having someone you can call to the window, so you can look together. Home is where you dance with others, and dancing is life.”

‘What, honey?’
She smiled. ‘How we danced!’”