In the past fifty years, there have been numerous books about John F. Kennedy's assassination. November 22 is the fiftieth anniversary, and that means there are even more books, nonfiction and fiction, that discuss the event, speculating about the assassination. Jim Lehrer's novel, Top Down, takes an unusual angle. What happened to the Secret Service agent who ordered the bubble top removed from the presidential limousine?
Two men have to live with that decision. Jack Gilmore was an ambitious newspaper reporter covering Love Field in 1963. When his office suggested a question, he asked Secret Service Agent Martin Van Walters if the bubble top would be on or off the limo. After checking the weather, Van Walters then ordered the top removed.. Five years later, Jack is still working as a reporter, but Van Walters is suffering. He blames himself for what happened that day. What if the bubble top had remained on the car? Van Walters can't get past his guilt. Marti Van Walters, the agent's daughter, searches for Jack, and asks his help in convincing her father that he's not responsible for JFK's death.
Jack Gilmore saw the story of the Secret Service agent as the chance at a story. Marti saw this as an opportunity to save her father. They may have had different motivation, but both people were determined to prove that Martin Van Walters wasn't to blame for Kennedy's death.
Lehrer's novel hinges on one incident, but it's intriguing. How many people lived with feelings of guilt after the assassination? Van Walters isn't the only one in his family who suffer from the aftereffects. I had never really thought about the ripple effect of the emotions of those who were directly involved. Lehrer made the comment that everyone shared a piece of guilt.
As interesting as the premise was, it seemed as if Lehrer struggled to stretch that premise to 190 pages.I will admit I tired of the characters, particularly Marti's obsession. The characters seemed to have a difficult time carrying the story with only one linchpin.
Top Down is about two men who use different methods to escape their past. Most of us remember where we were when tragic public events occur. This is the year we ask, "Where were you on November 22, 1963, when John F Kennedy was assassinated?" Lehrer's novel asks who bears the guilt for the assassination.
Top Down by Jim Lehrer. 2013. Random House. ISBN 9781400069163 (hardcover), 190p.
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