Stick to the news

Top Down (NetGalley)
Jim Lehrer
release date: Oct. 8

I’ve kind of had a Jim Lehrer crush for a number of years–I watched him nightly on the NewsHour, appreciating his insight on all things newsworthy. And although I knew him to be a fiction writer, I’ve not read even one of his novels. Some fan I am, right? But last year I read Stephen King’s 1964, and with the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination, I thought Lehrer’s novel would make a great bookend.

The story turns on two men: Jack Gilmore, reporter for the Dallas Tribune at the time of Kennedy’s death, and Van Walters, secret service agent responsible for giving the order to leave the bubble off

Kennedy’s limousine. Gilmore, in fact, was present at the airport when Walters ordered the top down, and a few years later, helps Walters’ twenty-year-old daughter unravel the story of that awful day.

Marti Walters is on a mission to bring her father back from the brink of death. After the assassination, Van Walters is clearly a shattered man, blaming himself for Kennedy’s death. The Secret Service transfers him numerous times, his designation as a special agent is removed, and he is finally retired from service. Suffering from what we now know as PTSD, Walters is a shell of a man–drugged, depressed, and almost catatonic. And because “victims usually come in pairs”, his wife depends on alcohol to dull the loss of her once-happy home-life.  The Walters move to Singapore, Van works for a time as a private security agent, and Marti enlists Jack’s help to re-enact the scene to determine if “top up” would have deflected the bullet as Van believed–or wrecked more havoc with shards of plastic spraying everywhere.

A fascinating premise for a novel, told by an author who was on the scene, just as Van Walters was. Lehrer spoke in early November at an event commemorating the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. Seems that Lehrer himself was the reporter who asked the secret service whether or not the limo top would be up or down–and it was his question that triggered the phone call setting the events in motion.

Lehrer should have stuck with the straight news on this one. His characters are wooden, the dialog cliche, and the plot plods dutifully along to a anticlimactic end.  I actually stopped reading the book in the middle of the last chapter and set the novel aside for nearly three weeks–something unheard of for me.  Only a niggling doubt that I might be missing some “gotcha!” sent me back to finish it. But sadly, there wasn’t.

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