Combine comic-book fiction with sentimental hagiography and you get trashy junk. Observe that fiction and hagiography, assisted by history, can be paths to truth, to the limited degree we can know it, but they must be done right. Illustrating how they ought not be done is an awful novel by a silly writer, Francine Mathews, Jack 1939, which was published last year (Riverhead Books, 420 pages, each one in need of re-writing, plus 3-page author’s note that adds nothing to her credibility), notwithstanding silly blurbs that one assumes were written by the author’s mother or publicist (“One of the most deliciously high-concept thrillers imaginable,” words the publisher claims appeared in the New Yorker).
The premise might yield possibilities: It is spring and summer of 1939, when John Kennedy, then 22, was in fact in Europe, researching his Harvard senior thesis (the delays are due to his serious illnesses during the ’30s, also factual). The young scholar’s base is London, where his father, the redoubtable financier Jos. P. Kennedy, is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ambassador, as well as his rival and political opponent, particularly on matters of foreign policy, as J.P. is a committed isolationist (also factual). The Nazis are on the march, having just got Czechoslovakia from the umbrella-wielding Neville Chamberlain; they are preparing to grab the Free City of Danzig and crush Poland, aided and abetted by the Soviet Communists with whom they will share the spoils.
A serial killer — here we verge into fiction — at loose on both sides of the Atlantic gives Roosevelt’s men the first indication of a nefarious Nazi plot to steal the 1940 election, putting an isolationist in the White House and guaranteeing Hitler’s conquest of Europe. Ambassador Kennedy is a witting supporter of this appalling conspiracy, which Jack recognizes as treason, but so are many others in England and the U.S., including Churchill (highly improbable).
I am giving the plot away because, quite honestly, it would constitute professional dereliction to recommend you read this book, so you may as well know. If they make a movie, I would volunteer to play one of the Nazi thugs if the author plays the heroine, but I am too squeamish and anyway I think her only punishment should be to read her own books a few times.
So, FDR enlists the young man to engage in bit of espionage in the service of his country under the guise of thesis research. He is weak, suffering from a dangerous disease requiring treatments that he administers himself, but he is determined and stoical. (This is factual: remember the heroics of Kennedy’s PT boat command in the Pacific war.) There follow some 200 pages of boys-own capers against Nazi thugs, combined with a passionate pursuit of a beautiful British spy posing as a fascist groupie but who turns out to be working in the same cause as Jack. Of course, Jack saves Roosevelt’s presidency, cutting a deal with FDR to suppress the evidence of Anglo-American upper-class collusion with Nazi vote-fraud schemes (Kennedy clan loyalty oblige), and goes home to prepare for war, though brokenhearted since his love interest, who at the last minute is revealed, on top of everything else, as Jewish, gives her life in particularly gruesome circumstances to the cause (Jack avenges her, of course).
Well, it is dashing stuff; and, no doubt, you can do fine work in the genre. The idea is to take a historical figure and imagine how he might have behaved, had certain events, that probably did not happen, happened; or use the historical figures as pretexts for how others, presumably make-believe, make their way through the treacheries and ironies of historical events. This is what Charles McCarry does in his masterful examination of the circumstances leading to the Kennedy assassination, in The Tears of Autumn (1974). Here Kennedy is not an actor, and the hero is an invented character, Paul Christopher, a picture of what our secret agents are at their best, but the clan of the assassinated Ngo Dinh Diem, bent on revenge in the belief Kennedy ordered the move on their leader, behaves in ways that, of course, must remain in the realm of fictional speculation.
Mentioning a writer as substantial as McCarry in comparison with Miss Mathews is more than faintly unfair (“not cricket,” she would say, trying to get the appropriate idioms for her multi-national cast of characters), but it underscores the perils of faring into waters where you can only drown. Miss Mathews, despite a tin ear for dialogue, gets off to a fairly good start with some sharp sketches of intra-Kennedy dynamics and of the youthful personality of her hero, whom she paints as the sickly, rebellious, very much second-son that that he was. The distrust between Roosevelt and the FBI, and everyone’s distrust of the State Department, is mainly done to bash J. Edgar Hoover, applaud FDR’s shrewdness, and demonstrate the impossibility of leading a nation without a foreign intelligence service. It also lends some verisimilitude to the Kennedy mission and perhaps serves as plug for Miss Mathews’s former employers, to offset the reader’s growing suspicion that in her we have further evidence of how they need to rethink their act from top to bottom. But thereafter it is all downhill, as Miss Mathews moves the story along by alternating comic-book derring-do and romance-novel pornography.
“He lost control of his hands then. They roamed over her rib cage and circled her waist, pulled her pelvis toward his.… He slid the strap of her even gown from her shoulder” etc., which in this book is the same as, “Ignoring the stares of other people on the bridge, Obst kicked him in the face. Jack fell against the railing, his nose streaming blood, and vomited into the river” (etc. ad n.).
It is the same in the sense that these passages serve the same function, which is to replace all substance with sentimentality. The sentimentality, in turn, has no other function than to allow the reader to feel, without having made any deliberate effort, that he (or she; this book was written for women no less than the ripped lace tradition to which it belongs) understands this lovely, vulnerable, courageous, lovable boy — the word that everyone in the book, his family, his lovers, his enemies, his President, applies to Jack Kennedy at 22 — identifies with his patriotism and his passion.
The fraud — this is the invariable sin of sentimental novels — is that the false sentiments in fact correspond to real emotions, but the reader, who is taken for a cretin by the sentimentalist author, has no way to get to these real emotions. This is, of course, the quality that is inherent in pornography, which might be defined as the cold twin of sentimentality. Anyway, you get my point. But the reason it matters — and there is no need here to continue with this dopey novel — is that, as it happens, John Kennedy was all those things, an attractive and charming man, a courageous patriot, physically vulnerable most of his life due to ailments and war wounds, certainly lovable with his intelligence and his wit and his conception of what life is about and what America represents.
He was resourceful and imaginative: he demonstrated these qualities from a young age, not least in 1939, when he realized that appeasement was a disastrous policy and that his father and Neville Chamberlain were not serving their nations well by pushing it, even though, in the strategic circumstances of the day, it was not necessarily an abhorrent short-term tactic (this is the thesis of his senior thesis, which became Why England Slept). The hard headedness of Jack Kennedy, which some describe as the essential trait of an essentially conservative disposition, must be taken with the idealism that led him to dream grandly of sending men to the moon and, perhaps recklessly, committing his countrymen to paying any price in the pursuit of noble but open-ended objectives. Serious reflection on the consequences of such a leader’s personality and ambition, combined with true artistry, makes a classic like Charles McCarry’s somber and profound The Tears of Autumn; self-indulgent sentimentality, by contrast, results in the vacuous female fantasies of Miss Mathews or the no less empty baby-boomer vanities of a hack like Richard Cohen. (I know, we at TAS have been piling it on the hapless Washington Post guy lately, but we will make it up by taking him out for a drink; Miss M. is welcome to tag along.) Both have only their own feelings, their own hurt and warm and cozy and pained sensitivities, where Americans, grown-up ones, once had a fellow-citizen, temporarily primus inter pares, whom they were eager to serve and follow, including by disagreeing with him in open and frank debate.
There were reasons, good reasons, we loved John Kennedy, with all his flaws and errors, and the bond between the man and the rest of us has somehow survived the uses to which his fake admirers have put it for 50 years. These uses are many, from phony political legacies to silly romances and self-indulgent newspaper pieces, but they all alike in their refusal to face reality, a weakness John Kennedy fought all his life, not always successfully, but with the determination of a true and responsible patriot.