Thursday, July 02, 2015

"The Go-Between: A Novel of the Kennedy Years" by Frederick Turner

It is important that the reader recognize this is presented as a work of fiction, although there will always be a tremendous and probably natural temptation to treat all the details it presents as historical fact, for they certainly ring true.

The author's method is an exceedingly verbose and sometimes even tedious monolog. In sympathetic fashion he tells the story of the young woman who became notorious as the mistress of not only handsome young President John F. Kennedy and singer Frank Sinatra but also, significantly, of Chicago mob boss Sam Giancanna. Sinatra and other entertainers owed considerable loyalty to Giancanna, who was also was carrying on an affair with popular singer Phyllis McGuire.

Judith Campbell Exner also is remembered as the woman who, innocently or otherwise, served as the courier between the newly elected Kennedy in Washington and the mobster in Chicago. JFK and his brother, Robert - his attorney general - thought Giancanna could help dispose of the threat to national security posed by the revolutionary Fidel Castro in Cuba.

By the time Exner - who was a household name in the early '60s - died of breast cancer in 1999, she had long vanished from the nation's headlines. She's remembered as a woman who knowingly and willingly had a sexual relationship with a married president - a glamorous president at that. Hers was a shadowy presence at Camelot, although when that era is remembered the dominant female figure is always Jackie Kennedy, barely present in this novel.

If this fictional account is to be believed, Exner's liaison with JFK and her courier role preceded and contributed to his election. There has long been speculation that the vote results in Illinois and West Virginia, results that helped Kennedy win the Democratic primaries in those states and ultimately propelled him into the Oval Office in 1960, may have been "arranged" by the Chicago mob.

Giancanna and his goons were enlisted (if this novel is to be believed, the transaction was carried out in a Chicago courtroom) on the candidate's behalf by his father, former ambassador Joseph Kennedy, a notorious wheeler-dealer with heavy political ambitions for Jack. His first hope had been that an older son, Joseph, would become president; Joe, however, died in a World War II airplane crash in England.

The author's approach is deceptively simple and effective (despite his verbosity and his excessive use of the first person singular): He imagines he is a down-on-his luck newspaper hack who accidentally gains access to Exner's diaries. As he pores over them, he tells his readers, as if he's talking across a dinner table, what he thinks her sometimes cryptic entries in those diaries must have meant. The result is a narrative that will appeal to readers who have an interest in national politics and in particular the Kennedy administration.

Thanks to Al Hutchison

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