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Whatever happened to JFK?

Hugo Barnacle analyses Mark Lawson's fictional recasting of American history

by Mark Lawson

Picador, pounds 9.99

is what New York's international airport would still be called if Lee Harvey Oswald, or whoever, had been less of a marksman. In Mark Lawson's first novel, set in November 1993, the aged John F Kennedy is preparing for the ceremony to dedicate some new exhibits at his presidential museum in Boston. He decides to invite his old flame Marilyn Monroe, who is making only her second comeback picture since her near-fatal overdose in 1962.

Whenever he appears in public, which is seldom, JFK is met by Vietnam veterans chanting things like "Hey, hey, JFK, how many kids did you kill today?" His survival, in Lawson's version, has made no difference to history at all, except that Bill Clinton lost the '92 election because of a perceived resemblance to him. Instead, Americans elected a know-nothing Seattle businessman on an anti-politics ticket.

Despite his low profile, Kennedy is being stalked by an assassin called Fraser, who has read too much Stephen Hawking and believes that, if he can do the job the Dallas gunman bungled 30 years ago, he might switch the cosmic points, return time to the right track and negate all the bad things that have happened since: a parodic inversion of the now unfashionable idea that the president's death was itself a bad thing and led to many others.

Meanwhile, at a conference of conspiracy freaks, where the 30th anniversary is marked by the airing of various loopy theories as to what really happened in Dallas, one of the speakers encounters his long lost first love, finally gets to go to bed with her, and finds it very disappointing.

So, apparently, Lawson rewrites the past only to show that rewriting the past is a fool's errand, and instead of a what-if story we have a so-what story, which is hard to get excited about. The central premise, that Kennedy would have made as big a mess of Vietnam as Johnson did, is a piece of received wisdom that no longer has much ironic bite and never did have much foundation: just before he died, JFK announced his intention to quit Vietnam and began ordering home the troops.

The book's other satirical targets - Gingrich-type demagoguery, spin doctors, muckraking journalists - are somewhat lazy, obvious choices; the plotting is slow and diffuse; though JFK gets some nicely urbane lines, Marilyn never comes to life or fits into the overall scheme; and much of the writing is remarkably careless.

On page 65 we are told the flaky Fraser is obsessed with time, but "not in the sense of clocks - the police who bring him in will note that he does not even wear a wrist-watch." Cut to the chase on page 275, and as the cops close in on him, "The suspect looks at his watch... picks up his bag and turns right, walking fast..."

One of the cops, hurt in an explosion, doesn't want to miss the arrest and keeps his arm across the bloodstain on his jacket, so his partner "will not see that he is injured". This is odd, because four pages earlier his partner has seen the blood and told him, "You been hit". These two cops, Mike and Gerry, conduct philosophical dialogues throughout the book; on page 46 Lawson makes the classic error of forgetting which character is speaking, and Mike answers his own dumb question with a nonchalant put-down.

Elsewhere, Marilyn calls JFK "Black Jack", which was not his nickname but his father-in-law's; and a couple of scandal-mag hacks discuss their 1969 cover splash, "A Babe Too Far - Jackie Calls for Divorce", which is impossible since A Bridge Too Far existed neither as film nor as book at the time.

In the repeated descriptions of war veterans indulging in old campus chants, Lawson seems to confuse two different groups of people. The working- class men who went to Vietnam have little time for the middle-class, draft- exempt students who went on demos, and do not make a point of imitating them. The conspiracy freaks are also a puzzle, because if the president had not died, the Dallas shooting would not compel such attention and anniversaries would pass unnoticed.

There are some decent jokes, but Lawson is prone to spoil them with heavy underlining. A hack refers to a certain secret payment as "laryngectomy cash", for example, and then explains, "a wad to keep your mouth shut." The sick-comic climax, when it comes, is dealt with so solemnly that the report is muffled.

Maybe if the novel's characters, themes, style and storyline had just a little more conviction these would all be minor quibbles; but then, as Mike says to Gerry, "You could waste your life with maybes."