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.

From the stacks

Three Junes
by Julia Glass

I overlooked this book on the book club table at my local book stores for … maybe a year or more?! I would read the blurb on the back cover, carry it around for a while, and then think, “Oh–another book about three women? Sheesh! How many of those can you read?” And then I’d promptly set it down again. So what a surprise when I finally did succumb–only to find out that the “three Junes” were three months of June separated by years, and that two of the main narrators were men.

The story opens with the narrator Paul McLeod. A trip to Greece after the death of his wife prompts him to reminisce on their life together. As he tells his story, it is clear to the reader that we see things he does not–that the beautiful life he paints may have had some scratch outs and paint-overs. Paul’s son Fenno picks up the narration in the second June and we see Paul’s overpainting through the xray of his son’s story. The third June is told through the eyes of Fern, an neighbor of Fenno’s whose own life provides a counterpoint to Fenno’s. When Fern’s husband dies, Fenno is drawn in to her world–and through Fern’s tragedy finds clarity for his own.

A good read overall, I was most captivated with the McLeod family, and found myself distracted by Fern, who almost acted as a deus ex machina. I would rather that Glass had provided another family member’s perspective to round out the novel. Keeping it all in the family would have added to the novel’s cohesiveness.

Missing

This month’s Wired had an intriguing article about individuals who have decided to simply vanish–burdened by the mess they’ve made of their life, usually either relationships or illegal business dealings.(Check out “Gone” by Evan Ratliff; Sept. 09) Seems that none of the folks ever really vanished–that, now matter how airtight they thought their plan, they tripped themselves up somehow when they relaxed their guard. Ratliff is even trying to see if he can disappear for 30 days–$5000 if anyone finds him!

Of course Ratliff mentioned Huck Finn and Great Gatsby, both literary characters who sought to make their lives over. Curious also is the fact that the vanishing acts featured in Wired are all men. I wonder how many novels have been written about these kind of vanishing acts? I can think only of Ann Tyler’s Ladder of Years where Delia walks off the beach, down the road, and onto a new life. Any others?