I’ve never been a fan of horror. But I have enjoyed several of Stephen King’s forays outside the genre. This is one I’ll add to that list. King says he got the idea and started writing it in the early days of his career but quickly realized he didn’t have the time or the skills to do it justice. I’m glad he went back to it, because it’s well-done, and it could easily have been really lacking. At this point in his career he can hire researchers to help him with specific details. It also helps that the time he’s writing about is a time he lived through. He hasn’t lived in Texas, but it feels authentic.

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books set in each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character in the book, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. This is our first book for Texas.

The main complaint I’ve seen about this book is one I have to agree with–it’s overly long. It’s around 1000 pages. My feeling is that King got wrapped up in the idea of having Jake visit Derry, Maine in 1957-58–the setting for his novel It. And meet some of the characters. And hear about the strange occurrences. And it got out of hand, but he couldn’t stand to give it up.

The section in Maine in 1957 is meant to show the reader about the reset–whenever someone comes through the time shift they always arrive at the same time on the same day and everything has completely reset. It also serves to illustrate that “the past is obdurate”–it doesn’t want to be changed and will fight back. These are important concepts that we, as readers, need to grasp and accept. And it’s best to get that out of the way early so he doesn’t have to spend time on it while he’s trying to get to the Texas Book Depository.

But King really accomplished that without any of the scenes in Derry or any of the crossover stuff from It. Now, I admit that the crossover bit was fun and cool, and how many other authors could get away with this? But when you’re pushing over 1000 pages, I would hope that a good editor would be able and willing to say–even to Stephen King–“You know, Stephen, cutting the It crossover would make this a tighter book and maintain the focus on the actual storyline.” Who knows? Maybe King’s editor did and was overruled. At this point in his career, I’d imagine King can overrule his editors on something like this.

The other thing that was established in these scenes was Jake’s love and talent for swing dancing. I suppose that getting that in place before he met Sadie made it more believable, but it could easily have been established in the future/present, or through a dance in the past before he arrived in Texas. Having it happen through tutoring the main characters from It in the niceties of dance seems… unnecessary.

Anyway, the historical details were wonderfully done–the angst and general depression of the height of the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis were fantastic. The details from the life of Lee Harvey Oswald were extensive and interesting. And, of course, we know that maximum suspense demands that Jake delay and be delayed until we get a high-octane race against time on the actual day.

King’s characterization of Dallas and Fort Worth was full of… an odd venom. But also full of tiny details that made it come to life. Often the two overlapped.

The simple truth was that I didn’t like Dallas, and eight weeks of hard study was enough to make me believe there was a lot not to like. The Times Herald (which many Dallas-ites routinely called the Slimes Herald) was a tiresome juggernaut of nickel boosterism. The Morning News might wax lyrical, talking about how Dallas and Houston were “in a race to the heavens,” but the skyscrapers of which the editorial spoke were an island of architectural blah surrounded by rings of what I came to think of as The Great American Flatcult. The newspapers ignored the slum neighborhoods where the divisions along racial lines were just beginning to melt a little. Further out were endless middle-class housing developments, mostly owned by veterans of World War II and Korea. The vets had wives who spent their days Pledging the furniture and Maytagging the clothes. Most had 2.5 children.

Stephen King in 11/22/63

Much of that description could be applied to many other American cities of the day, but King gives us Texas too.

Beyond the suburban houses with their whirling lawn-sprinklers were those vast flat tracts of empty. Here and there rolling irrigators still serviced cotton crops, but mostly King Cotton was dead, replaced by endless acres of corn and soybeans. The real Dallas County crops were electronics, textiles, bullshit, and black money petro-dollars. There weren’t many derricks in the area, but when the wind blew from the west, where the Permian Basin is, the twin cities stank of oil and natural gas.

Stephen King in 11/22/63

King’s descriptions of the surveillance technology available in 1960 are detailed, and he adds in a few “predictions,” which certainly ring true.

“This is an Echo. Manufactured right here in town, son. If anyone can beat the sons of Nippon at their own game, it’s us. Electronics is gonna replace banking in Dallas by 1970. Mark my words.”

Stephen King in 11/22/63

But he gives us the people as well, although some of the descriptions are the expected stereotypes of the larger than life Texans.

The Full Dallas: checked sport coats, narrow neckwear held down with bloated tie clips (these clips, the sixties version of bling, usually came with diamonds or plausible substitutes sparkling in their centers), white Sansabelt pants, and gaudy boots with complex stitching. They worked in banks and investment companies. They sold soybean futures and oil leases … They clapped each other on the shoulders with beringed hands and called each other son. On their belts, where businessmen in 2011 carry their cell phones, many carried handguns in hand-tooled holsters.

Stephen King in 11/22/63

King is a bit more forgiving of small town Texas–his descriptions, while still full of gun-toting and sometimes small-minded folks, also showcase their generosity. This is also our first look at the Texas obsession with high school football. Many times over the course of this challenge I’ve read about a supposed characteristic of a particular state and felt that it was more a characteristic of country folks–something I remembered from upstate New York. Joe Lansdale’s book The Bottoms mentions that his East Texas characters refer to dinner and supper rather than lunch and dinner, but that’s something my upstate farm relatives do as well. However, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a billboard featuring a local high school football player, and Jodie, Texas has one.

The physical Texas setting is not as extensively drawn as I’d like–I like to really be able to get a clear image from my reading–but the pieces were all there, and it all added up to Texas.

August in Jodie was an oven, with temperatures at least in the nineties every day and often breaking a hundred. The air-conditioning in my rented house on Mesa Lane was good, but not good enough to withstand that sort of sustained assault. Sometimes—if there was a cooling shower—the nights were a little better, but not by much.

Stephen King in 11/22/63

And this lovely description that combines small town early 1960s Texas with the tidbits that make a place a home:

Jodie was home. Here’s home: the smell of the sage and the way the hills flush orange with Indian blanket in the summer. The faint taste of tobacco on Sadie’s tongue and the squeak of the oiled wood floorboards in my homeroom. Other things, too. People saying howdy on the street, people giving me a wave from their cars, Al Stevens taking Sadie and me to the table at the back that he had started calling “our table,” playing cribbage on Friday afternoons in the teachers’ room with Danny Laverty for a penny a point, arguing with elderly Miss Mayer about who gave the better newscast, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, or Walter Cronkite. My street, my shotgun house, getting used to using a typewriter again. Having a best girl and getting S&H Green Stamps with my groceries and real butter on my movie popcorn.

Stephen King in 11/22/63

King also defines place using local accents. In Jodie, we hear, “Nah, just goofin witcha,” and, “Highway 77? Only he said it seb’ny-seb’n,” and, “‘The general who got fired?’ Lee said it fard.” And in Maine, we hear, “‘Five-or ten-cent beer?’ He said it the Maine way: beeyah.”

King also remarks a number of times that while there might be more open spaces in the late 1950s, there was a lot of pollution going on.

I could smell the powerful effluent pouring from the triple stacks, strong enough to make my eyes sting. An EPA inspector would have taken one sniff of that shit and shut the whole operation down in a New England minute. Except . . . I didn’t think there were any EPA inspectors in the vicinity. I wasn’t even sure the EPA had been invented yet.

Stephen King in 11/22/63

And in Texas he comments frequently on smells: “In 1962, most of central Texas smells like a malfunctioning refinery.”

Overall, 11/22/63 by Stephen King was a good starting point in Texas for our reading challenge. The characterizations were good, if not terribly deep, and the same can be said for the landscapes. The time setting was more thorough than the location, but the location was definitely Texas. While I really enjoyed this one, I doubt it will be my favorite one for getting to know Texas. See you soon with something a bit less light!

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