Friday, June 7, 2013

Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination by Jim Lehrer

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: June 7, 2013

In a riveting novel rooted in one of American history’s great “what ifs,” Jim Lehrer tells the story of two men haunted by the events leading up to John F. Kennedy’s assassination. November 22, 1963. As Air Force One touches down in Dallas, ambitious young newspaper reporter Jack Gilmore races to get the scoop on preparations for President Kennedy’s motorcade. Will the bubble top on the presidential limousine be up or down? Down, according to veteran Secret Service agent Van Walters. The decision to leave the top down and expose JFK to fire from above will weigh on Van’s conscience for decades. But will it also change the course of history? Five years after the assassination, Jack gets an anguished phone call from Van’s daughter Marti. Van Walters is ravaged by guilt, so convinced that his actions led to JFK’s death that he has lost the will to live. In a desperate bid to deliver her father from his demons, Marti enlists Jack’s help in a risky reenactment designed to prove once and for all what would have happened had the bubble top stayed in place on that grim November day. For Jack, it’s a chance to break a once-in-a-lifetime story that could make his career. But for Van the stakes are even higher. The outcome of a ballistics test conducted on the grounds of a secluded estate in upstate New York might just save his life—or push him over the edge. A page-turning historical novel with the beating heart of a thriller, Top Down could only have sprung from the fertile imagination of Jim Lehrer. Drawing on his own experience as an eyewitness to the events described, one of America’s most respected journalists has crafted an engrossing story out of the emotional aftershocks of a national tragedy.

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President Kennedy in the limousine in Dallas, Texas,
minutes before the assassination.
What if? Most of us have pondered the question. What if I'd married my high school sweetheart, gone to college, or taken that job offer? It is a personal query, most often attached to some experience or decision we've made along the way, but what if your 'what if' moment wasn't exactly small scale? 

What if your moment made headlines around the world, was inscribed in the nation's history books and memorialized forever in an eternal flame? This is the premise of Jim Lehrer's Top Down, a fictional piece that introduces readers to Van Walters, a former Secret Service agent who struggles with demons born of the guilt he bears over a split second decision made on November 22, 1963. 

I personally loved how Lehrer approached this story. He doesn't focus on big names or play up the celebrity drama, nor does he dwell on conspiracy theories or the findings of the Warren Commission. His scope is much smaller, centered not on the event itself, but rather the lingering effects of guilt and PTSD as felt by a man attached, however minimally, to the assassination of President Kennedy.

Though the book is about largely about Van, it was Jack - Lehrer's protagonist, not JFK - who I found most interesting. Perhaps it is because Lehrer based the character on himself, but Jack is an incredibly believable character and I found a lot to admire in how he tackles his conflicting emotions.

Not being much of a Kennedy buff, I don't know if I'd recommend it to those who follow the family, but in terms of historic fiction Top Down is an interesting read. Subtle and straightforward it certainly gives one reason to reflect on the shooting and the multitude of factors the played into the tragedy.

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"And so, I, too, became one of the many people connected to the Kennedy Texas trip who were plagued by varying levels of what-if guilt. A guilt that would stay with us forever."
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