Whatever happened to JFK?

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

Idlewild

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."

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker