This is the story of Johnny Smith, a high school English teacher in a small town in Maine, and events which occur in his life over a period of about twenty years. Johnny has twice been the victim of head injuries, once as a child, and once as a young man, and as a result, he has developed an ability to 'know' things about people, their lives, and their futures, simply by touching them.
An accident that will befall a friend of his family, a remarkable string of winning bets on the "Wheel of Fortune" at the local fall fair, a kitchen fire at the home of his physiotherapist, and the location of his former girlfriend's lost ring, are some of the less significant events which Johnny is able to "predict" as we get to know him in the early stages of the novel.
The main focus of the book, however, lies with the age old philosophical conundrum of whether, given the chance, a person would choose to kill Hitler before the second world war. Johnny is given the chance to decide for himself when he meets and foresees the future of a modern day "Hitler", an independent congressman named Greg Stillson. Stillson's background is questionable but well hidden, as are his methods of using violence and blackmail as his keys to the doors of power.
The novel ends with a fine twist in which Johnny makes his choice, and Stillson reveals himself for what he really is.
The strength of the novel lies in the depth of characterization King brings to Johnny and the rest of the cast, and to the complex interweaving of a number of sub plots and themes.
Aside from Smith, certainly one of the finest characters King has created, we are treated to a strong cast of supporting players. Stillson (a much better than average bad guy), and his cruel sidekick, the former biker, Sonny Elliman. Johnny's dad, King's typical solid country gentleman, and his mom, who is on a journey of her own into madness. Johnny's former girlfriend Sarah, and his neurologist and friend, Dr. Sam Wiezak, a man of great compassion, and equally great humour.
Beautifully written and containing some of King's most poignant scenes and relationships, this is a fine novel, that stands up terrifically well eighteen years after its initial publication.
Stephen Milligan, June, 1997