D. M. Thomas is correct in assuming that the public murder of John F. Kennedy in 1963 has assumed the proportions of a modern myth. It has now become the proper terrain for fiction writers who might offer us new ways to see the event, understand it and find a place for it in our personal histories. In his new novel "Flying in to Love," Thomas (the author of eight other novels, including "The White Hotel") focuses on the assassination in a series of interrelated episodes of re-created, dreamed and imagined history. The book features the full confluence of real people who came together on that November day after the Kennedys arrived at Love Field in Dallas, as well as a host of others who would have met had things gone another way. Kennedy was scheduled to speak at the Trade Mart in Dallas, Thomas notes, where a woman would slap his face and another would come on to him, and then he and Jackie would spend the evening of the 22nd at Lyndon Johnson's ranch.
The novel is presented in 55 short chapters, and if there is a thread that runs through the book it is probably the story of Sister Agnes, a "an exceptionally beautiful Democrat nun" whom Kennedy shakes hands with that morning in Dallas, a person obsessed by him and his death. "Every moment of her life was the moment between firing and impact." Kennedy is sexually attracted to her--he's sexually attracted to nearly everyone in this book--and wants to try to see her again. For her part, she feels the charge of his personality and it stays with her all her days. But the Sister Agnes story is not enough of a story to carry the novel. It's too thin and she's too generic a character. The best reading of her would have her as a metaphor for the American people: Their lives were forever changed by the death of the President they loved; they were raped--or dreamed they were--by the assassin; they will never know the whole and real truth; and their ability to find any solace has been shaken. And? Beyond this, her story--brought forward to the 1990s--seems simply a facilitating device for the novel. Sister Agnes seems a kind of place holder, and not a real woman bearing her consuming torment. But too many of the characters have the same problem. Even when we recognize the name (Oswald, Tippitt, Connally) the figure that emerges does so simply to advance whatever scene, real or imagined, is being played. So much of the novel seems strangely mundane, flat. It is as if Thomas had shuffled all the scenes correctly in syncopated increments and gotten the people in place and then not imagined--or dreamed--this world deeply enough.