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Unbaited Hook : I, JFK by Robert Mayer (E. P. Dutton: $18.95; 263 pp.; 0-525-24776-9)

July 16, 1989|George Bernau | Bernau's "Promises to Keep" (Warner Books) received the highest advance for a first novel in publishing history. and

"I, JFK" has a hook, as they say in Hollywood and apparently in some publishing circles in New York now as well. It even has--please forgive me, but such things are truly highly regarded in some quarters--a coveted "pithy hook," that is, a story line that can be told so succinctly that one film executive can tell another studio executive the entire idea while they're using the facilities in the washroom. The hook here is--wouldn't it be funny (all pithy hooks are required to begin with this phrase) if Jack Kennedy could write his memoirs from the afterlife and give us the lowdown on the many questions and mysteries he left behind? The answer is, of course, as it always is with such hooks--not necessarily.

The too-often forgotten fact is that after hook conception must come hook execution. And although a work may get high marks for its premise as "I, JFK" does, it may never fulfill its potential.

The book contains two major narrative lines. First, there is the imagined J.F.K. biography itself. The reader is teased in the beginning of the book to expect, if patient enough, that much will be revealed. Who really killed J.F.K.? Why? All the inside scoop on Marilyn M. and Judith E., Bobby's mysterious death, the shadowy roles of the FBI and the CIA in the secrets of the '60s, the true facts behind the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs and much, much more. The truth is, however, that the answers the book finally arrives at for these mysteries are ultimately shallow and unbelievable.

The biographical narrative itself, except for occasional wild flights of fancy, is also pretty flat reading. There is nothing new here and even though it is supposed to have been written by President Kennedy, both the events chosen and the prose that they were written in sound very much like a series of events copied off index cards researched in a library somewhere.

And although it purports to be written through the eyes of Jack Kennedy himself, there is never any serious attempt to truly imagine ourselves inside J.F.K.'s consciousness. Instead, what we are given is the writer's sensibility merely labeled as Kennedy's. We are told early in the story that we won't recognize the writing as that of J.F.K. because we are only familiar with the words Ted Sorenson wrote for the President and not Kennedy's real voice. Then the writer seems to feel free to abandon any attempt at creating a unique J.F.K. persona, and to replace J.F.K.'s consciousness with the author's own style and tone. The result is a mismatch of story and style that leaves the reader feeling cheated by being promised one thing and then given another.

The final problem with the imagined biography line of the book is that although it is occasionally surprising, even shocking, the surprises and shocks are totally unbelievable. Of course, we're not really meant to believe these flights of wild fantasy. We're meant to laugh and be enlightened. And there are some laughs along the way, but unless this is a reader's first look at this material--very little light.

The second narrative line of the book is better. As he writes his imagined biography, J.F.K. banters with the after-death personas of Bobby, Lyndon B. Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, Martin Luther King Jr. and others. There are good light moments here and nicely set-up laughs, but what it adds up to essentially is only a series of exaggerated caricatures. The characters, who are some of the most complex and interesting people of the 20th Century, do and say things quickly and effortlessly with all the simplicity of a cartoon, not a novel. The characters are shallow and without motive; viewed ultimately in this manner, they become simply pathetic and foolish. Of course, good political cartoons can amuse and enlighten too, but once again, these cartoons are so slight that although they occasionally amuse, they do not ever really enlighten.

Although there are some smiles along the way, "I, JFK" is a good concept only very slightly executed.

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