"Ten thousand dreams a night are dreamed about Kennedy's assassination," the narrator in D. M. Thomas' Flying in to Love (Charles Scribner's Son, $20) says in the novel's opening sentence. The narrator learned that fact from a Dallas psychologist, he tells us. But is it a fact or is it just one of the many fictions Thomas and other authors have weaved about Kennedy and his myth-inspiring fate?
"Every book about the assassination of John F. Kennedy has mingled reality and fiction, and mine is no different," the Welsh author acknowledges in a frontspiece note where he lists nine books he consulted to write his dream-like version of the events that took place in Dallas nearly three decades ago.
Flying in to Love is not the first novel about Kennedy and his assassination to appear recently. Don DeLillo's Libra, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1988, is a richly textured novel about the 1963 assassination that concentrates on the strange character of Lee Harvey Oswald. The Immortals by Michael Korda, published last month by Simon & Schuster ($20), covers the period just before the assassination, including the suicide of Marilyn Monroe, with whom both Jack and Bobby Kennedy frolic throughout the novel.
All of history is a kind of fiction, but the history of the Kennedy assassination has seemed peculiarly so. Those of us who were around on Nov. 22, 1963, can remember precisely where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news that John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, but we don't seem to be able to be certain about much else that went on that day. Over the years non-fiction books about the assassination have been filled more and more with the stuff of novels. Mysterious deaths. A man with an umbrella. Magical bullets.
So it's not surprising that finally authors have begun to write novels about the greatest unsolved mystery of our century (Is there anyone in America who still believes Oswald acted alone?). It is only surprising that it has taken so long. It's as if nearly 30 years after the assassination, we suddenly have concluded that the facts will never be enough. We read the Warren Commission Report. We read the Camelot versions of Kennedy's life. We read the revisionist account of his life. We read the various theories about his assassination. Now we want the truth.
"Sometimes only in fiction can the truth be told," reads the jacket cover on The Immortals.
Ironically, the most dishonest of these Kennedy novels is The Immortals. Anyone who believes that Korda, who is editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster and author of Queenie, has gotten to the truth about Kennedy, his brother and Marilyn Monroe, no doubt, also believed J. R., of another Dallas fame, was a realistic portrait of an American businessman. Korda's characters are only projections of pop culture icons, the Kennedys and Monroe of the popular imagination, not real flesh and blood people. The graphic love scenes between John Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, scenes that could be lifted out of any potboiler novel, are particularly telling: This is exploitive mini-series material, not serious fiction aimed at truth seeking. Film rights have, in fact, already been sold to Dino De Laurentiis (Madonna may be tapped to play Marilyn).
Even Korda's explanation of who was behind the assassination is way too pat. In a scene that seems to be taken out of a bad gangster film, he clumsily hints at a Mafia hit.
Libra, on the other hand, is powerful _ and truthful _ precisely because DeLillo refuses to come up with any contrived answers. He presents Oswald as a pawn of history, a character caught up in a vortex set in motion by two disgruntled CIA agents whose plot to launch an assassination attempt gets out of hand. He embraces the ambiguity of Oswald's motives, like so many human motives, and accepts the fact that people's interlocking actions often produce what we call history not because of a well-planned conspiracy but despite themselves.
Offering a multilayered look at the man and the event that has been burned forever onto the American psyche, Flying in to Love also refuses to see life as a made-for-TV movie. The "Love" of Flying in to Love is Love Field in Dallas, the airport where Jack and Jackie Kennedy landed on Nov. 22, 1963, but it is also the emotion Kennedy stirred up (along with its sister passion, hate) during his lifetime. Thomas tells his story in dream fragments, flashbacks and flashforwards, using techniques reminiscent of his much-acclaimed The White Hotel.
Thomas also seeks truth _ but not about who killed JFK. At one point in the novel, Lyndon Johnson admits to tampering with Kennedy's corpse to cover up evidence of a conspiracy not because of who is behind the conspiracy _ he doesn't know _ but because he thinks the discovery of a conspiracy, whoever might be behind it, would tear the nation apart. The truth Thomas seeks in Flying in to Love is not about who pulled the trigger, but about how we react to history.
Thomas addresses our fears that life is simply random, and that no conspiracy theory will ever explain the "why" behind any particular event. There may be times when we would like to rewrite history. Especially our own. But we can't.
One of Thomas' characters, a nun, had planned to commit suicide on Nov. 22, 1963, but decided against it when Kennedy was assassinated. "Kennedy's fate changed hers," writes Thomas. "For she could not add to the grief of so many people dear to her: her sisters, the students." Yet although Kennedy's death saved her life, she can't help but wish that he hadn't been killed that day. In an essay composed on what would have been Kennedy's 70th birthday (May 29, 1987), she writes:
"And still, twenty-four years later, if I watch the Zapruder film of the tragic event, I find myself thinking, as the Lincoln draws near the fateful place: It will be different this time; there will be no shots . . . But there are always the shots."
Margo Hammond is book editor of the Times.