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You say King, I say Kring, we all say JFK assassination redux

March 4, 2011

Tim Kring: Hey! I wrote a sci-fi JFK assassination novel, too!

If I didn’t know better I’d get the idea from the L.A. Times that Stephen King’s newly announced novel will be only the third literary or cinematic treatment of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In fact, the assassination runs so strongly through American narrative culture I’m always surprised when anyone takes it up anew.

An argument can be made that the Kennedy assassination is the pivotal historic event in the second half of the American century, a shocking act of violence that scattered Camelot, snuffed out post-war American optimism, and left us a more fearful, tentative and divided nation.

That’s a simplistic view, of course, and history is complex. Even had Kennedy lived, America still would have no choice but to grapple with Vietnam, the Cold War, Civil Rights, the Women’s Movement, the sexual revolution and the unspeakable unfairness of having only three television networks to distract us from our problems.

Nonethless, it’s almost impossible, especially for those of us who were alive on Nov. 22, 1963, not to divide history in Before and After, and to wonder if things would have turned out quite so cynically had Kennedy lived. This is made all the more fascinating by the byzantine circumstances surrounding the assassination and the conspiracy theory industry that has arisen in aftermath.

Given the historic import and inherent drama of everything surrounding the assassination, it’s no surprise a strong vein of narrative mythologizing runs through popular culture. The two most prominent works are the ones cited by the L.A. Times: Don Delilo’s outstanding novel, Libra, which implies an ingenious solution as to who killed JFK and why, and Oliver Stone’s fantastically entertaining if profoundly inaccurate conspiracy melodrama, JFK.

But anyone who reads, goes to the movies or watches TV knows that these are but two examples. The “X-Files,” for example, dropped hints about the assassination again and again, culminating in an episode in which the shadowy operative “Cigarette Smoking Man” (modeled on CIA agent and Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt) is seen to be the force behind Kennedy’s death (not to mention the Bay of Pigs and the Martin Luther King assassination).

Other works exploring the Kennedy assassination include Richard Condon’s 1994 novel Winter Kills (later made into a movie). It’s a major part of James Ellroy’s ambitious “Underworld USA” trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood’s a Rover, 1995-2009).  British  sci-fi master J.G. Ballard used it as a recurring theme in his disturbing and controversial collection The Atrocity Exhibition (1970). It’s a plot point in the film The Watchmen. Mark Weingartner’s The Godfather’s Revenge makes dramatic use of the theory organized crime played a role in the assassination.

These are only a few of the movies, novels and TV shows that have touched on JFK’s assassination. The most recent that I know of is Shift, a novel by Tim Kring and Dale Peck that came out last summer. Kring is the TV writer and producer behind the “Heroes” program, while Peck is best known as an impolite book critic.

Shift got some rough treatment from reviewers when it first appeared, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Its narrative strategy — quick cuts between interesting if facile characters — effectively builds suspense, just as it did on “Heroes.” Kring’s almost deranged notion, linking the CIA, the Cubans and the Cold War with experiments in LSD and psychic abilities is weirdly compelling.

Kring and/or Peck have certainly done their homework, with historically believable portrayals of Timothy Leary, Jack Ruby and other people who actually lived. Occasionally the thrilleresque pacing is suddenly bestudded with a lovely description, or a filigree of slightly more than necessary character development, or a striking turn of phrase, all of which I take to be Peck’s literary influence breaking through.

Supposedly Shift is the first in a trilogy and I’m hoping it did well enough to justify the next two books. It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but it is better-than-average entertainment.

As for Stephen King, I’d read anything he writes so long as it doesn’t top 600 pages. His Kennedy novel, 11/22/63, concerns a Maine teacher who discovers a portal to 1958 and goes back to try and prevent the assassination. King is a master not only of suspense but also of social observation, so I’ll be looking forward to his take on the late ’50s-early ’60s as much as anything.

The book is scheduled for November publication.

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