Instead, "11/22/63" reads like two books welded together: the first a follow-up to King's 1986 bestseller "It," set in the fictional Maine town of Derry and complete with references to that novel's string of child murders and cameos by Richie Tozier and Beverly Marsh, and the second an assassination rhapsody. It takes nearly 300 pages for us to get to Texas, and once we're there, 400 more before the drama peaks. Along the way, there are nice bits of domestic detail as Jake settles down and falls in love with a woman who makes him question his sense of time and belonging. There are loose reflections on the space-time continuum, which Jake is always aware of having disrupted, for better or for worse. And then there is Oswald, who Jake determines, to the best of his ability, really is a lone gunman: bitter, derisive, a closet wife-beater, caught between the tawdriness of his real life on the margins and the grandiosity of his fantasies.
This is, or should have been, the meat of "11/22/63," and, indeed, when we see Oswald, the book achieves a gritty urgency. Why? Because half a century after the assassination, Oswald remains an empty vessel, a template for our dystopian dreams. Over the years, more than one writer has zeroed in on him — Mailer as well as Edward Jay Epstein, whose "Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald" looks at his ties to the intelligence community, and Don DeLillo, who portrays him as a cipher in his 1988 novel "Libra."
And yet in the end, "11/22/63" falls short of these investigations for it is not Oswald's tale but Jake's, the story not of an agent of chaos but of someone who sought to set the universe right. That this is impossible only goes without saying: It's that time-travel conundrum once again. Still, for all King's rhetoric about time and history, Jake never fully gets it: That the universe is implacable, that things happen for no apparent reason, and that order, logic and intention, the elusive grails that drive this novel, can become their own sort of conspiracy theory, a faith in meaning that experience belies.