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That was history, this is a myth; it's time to give up trying to rewrite it

  • Apr 17, 2010
"It was like Hercules being told he had one day to clean ou the king's stable and barn when the place was so deep in s**t the smell of it permeated all of Greece. Well, somehow Herc did it, but then, that's a myth, and this is history, and she gave up trying to rewrite it."

"She" in this quote from "The Go-Between" is Judith Campbell Exner, who for the few shining months of Camelot on the Potomac was paramour to President, Family, and Rat Pack. The months were short--barely four years from companion to catastrophe--and the shine quickly dulled as we all learned (in the second draft of history if not the first) of the corrupt connections, the Cuban fiascoes, and the coarse, constant, and conspicuous consumption of women. Judy was one of those women, and Turner uses a fictional set of her diaries to craft his rewriting of the myth.

When I selected this book from the Amazon Vines program, I was expecting something different--perhaps wider in scope, perhaps lighter, perhaps . . . Different. What we get with "The Go-Between" is the story of an aging Chicago newspaper researcher and writer who has never made it to the top of his profession who is allowed to see and take notes from (but not photocopy or view unattended) some of Judy's diaries. The story is told second and sometimes third hand through the omnipresent narration of the unnamed reporter, as he meanders through the story, sometimes pulling bits from the diaries, other times from research, memory, interviews, or what-we-know-now-we-didn't-know-then recaps of the the history. Most of the story is chronological, but our narrator sometimes jumps ahead or refers back, and sometimes he just digresses, always talking directly to us as if we were sitting next to him at a bar discussing over drinks.

I have never been a fan of this type of narrated story, because

1. It holds the reader at long-arms length from the story and the people it is trying to tell us about. Its like experiencing a movie by having someone describe the action and dialogue to you--the narrator might be able to give you enough detail to understand the movie, but would you really enjoy it and say you experienced it?

2. The narrator becomes the central character in the story, and he must be someone we like, respect, admire, or find amusing or in some way distinctive for the story to really compel. Our narrator here doesn't fill any of those qualifications for me.

3. It takes extreme skill as a writer to make the conceit work. Turner is a good writer, good enough to keep me reading to the end when I might have quit making the effort with lesser writers. But I'm still well aware that I'm not really sitting next to the narrator at a bar hearing the story first hand, and the the asides and diversions are distracting from the main story.

And then there's the subject matter. I was born in 1959, so I am too young to remember where I was when Kennedy was shot, and even my parents don't have strong memories about the time. But for a certain portion of the population (based on age, gender, political leaning, geographic location, or religious persuasion) The Kennedy Years were a capitalized, mythic Era. I don't know anything about Turner, but he seems to be one of that group, and he uses this book as a thinly-veiled memoir of

--his impressions of the time,
--how he has dealt with the diminution of the mythic characters as we have learned both the more sordid and the merely pedestrian underside of the myth, and
--how he can rewrite the myth in his own mind to retain as much of the shining legend as he can while still nodding acknowledgment to history, an effort he more or less openly admits in the quote I used to open my review.

If you are of the age and temperament of that group with Turner, I suspect you may find this book more interesting and perhaps cathartic than I did. As it stands I consider this on my reviewing scale worthy of three stars, but no more.

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review by . March 25, 2010
Turner, Frederick. "The Go-Between: A Novel of the Kennedy Years", Houghton Mifflin, 2010.  Remembering Camelot    Amos Lassen    It is only recently that the legend of Camelot has come to be known not only as the time when John Kennedy was president but as a time that some very sordid things were going on. Our main character here is Judith Campbell Exner, the supposed mistress of not only JFK but of Frank Sinatra and mob leader, Sam Giancana. The …
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Todd Stockslager ()
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I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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The sordid and fabled history of the American Camelot comes to life in this highly stylized, faux-journalistic reconstruction of the life and wild times of Judith Campbell Exner, reputed mistress to Frank Sinatra, JFK, and mob boss Sam Giancana. Our unnamed guide is an old-school Chicago journalist who talks in a hard-bitten voice about crooked prosecutors and pot-smoking car-dealers. But these marginal characters offer him his first glimpses into Exner's strange life and all the secret deals, trysts, and high-stakes maneuvers involved. Soon, he becomes obsessed and convinced that Exner was no high-class hooker, but an innocent believer attracted to romance and the high life, though ultimately in over her head as she goes from a party girl who catches Sinatra's eye to a paramour of the president and later a somewhat-unwitting go-between between the Kennedys and the mob. Turner paints her as a dark-haired counterpart to Marilyn Monroe, a quintessentially American tragic figure who enjoyed a charmed ascent and fell out of grace thanks to her flaws. Beneath the book's gossipy veneer, Turner (Redemption) cunningly probes notions of power, glamour, and notoriety.(May)
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ISBN-10: 0151015090
ISBN-13: 978-0151015092
Author: Frederick Turner
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
First to Review

"Remembering Camelot"
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