on November 22, 1963, a novel by Adam Braver (Tin House Books).

James Ellroy remarked at the time his novel American Tabloid was published in 1995 that the assassination of President Kennedy “was just another glamour killing.” I took this to mean that popular culture had converted the event’s imagery and reportage into something like the slow-motion cinematic killings of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in “Bonnie and Clyde.” But maybe Ellroy simply meant that the assassination was one more power murder in a never-ending series. American Tabloid, like Don Delillo’s Libra (1988), hypothesizes ways in which plotters could have staged the shooting in Dallas, and thus takes its place in the larger JFK conspiracy industry. What really happened? is a camouflaged or deflected way of asking What’s really happening?

braver9.jpgAdam Braver takes a different novelistic approach in November 22, 1963. His proximate interest is in imagining the moment as experienced and witnessed by the people involved. Jackie Kennedy is the main character, first seen in her Fort Worth hotel room on the morning of Friday, November 22, and then followed to the presidential funeral the following Monday. Braver’s first sentence reads, “When she moved into the White House, Jackie was a size 12. When she left she was a size 8.” The narrative moves seamlessly from the cataloguing of obscure facts and transcripted comment to description of events told via the third person, present tense. There are forward and backward leaps in time, but the main thread moves through the story as we have all received it. The narrative voice inhabits the characters’ experiences with the dual impulse to look at the dragon while protecting oneself from its hot breath. In this way, one may feel drawn into the experiences of various characters, while simultaneously treading above some darker, plunging depth. At other moments, there is only the residue of memory, the granitic presence of a fact.

Bobby Hargis is a Dallas motorcycle cop, one of four selected to ride alongside the president’s limousine:

“They always want to know about the blood. Sam Stern, an assistant counsel on the Warren Commission, wants to know about the blood. In Dallas, gathering testimony for the report, Stern seems to break from the flat, just-the-facts questioning to ask Bobby about the blood. It almost suggests an innate understanding that facts alone aren’t enough to make a story. He asks, ‘Did something happen to you personally in connection with the shot you have just described?’
Bobby replies, 'You mean about the blood hitting me?' and Stern says, 'Yes.' "

This same “innate understanding” drives Braver’s imagination – yet he writes with the seductive concision of an alternate commission, a tautness that gives authority to speculation and authenticity to the emotional valences, restrained as they are.

Another early character is Al Rike, an ambulance driver for the O’Neal Funeral Home who was waiting on duty at Parkland Memorial Hospital when the motorcade was just passing through Dealey Plaza. He had arrived at the hospital after picking up a man having a seizure while waiting for the motorcade near the Texas School Book Depository Building. Now the rush of people and bodies swept passed Rike, pushing him up against a corridor wall:

braver5.jpg“He was startled by a scraping sound. Next to him an agent wrestled with a metal folding chair. Then the first lady sat down, instinctively shrugging away the agent’s guidance. Al tried not to look. Shifting on his gurney, he wiped cold sweat off his brow. Outside the trauma room with Mrs. Kennedy. In a metal folding chair?
Mrs. Kennedy’s head turned slightly, her dark hair falling over her face. Al noticed her lips, taut and still, just parted enough for some air to get through. Nobody talked to her. Her husband lay behind the door while surgeons of all stature pretended to try to keep him alive. It was as if people were frightened of her. The agent had told her to sit and wait. So she sat and waited.
Al wished he were one of those people who knew the right things to say. She deserved the respect of comfort. A kind word. But his whole brain felt tongue-twisted. Just a twenty-five-year old Texas boy who started his day by scooping up epileptics. It was enough for him just to keep his composure. So he took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it, inhaling slowly. Thinking up what he might say, and how he might say it.
Mrs. Kennedy uncrossed her legs and then recrossed them in the other direction. She looked right at Al. He was sick with nerves, but afraid to look away. ‘Do you have an extra?’ she said. Her voice was quiet. Low and mechanical.”

braver6.jpgWhile reading November 22, 1963, I thought of Greg Brown’s song “The Brand New ’64 Dodge,” a quavering boyhood memory of driving in dad’s sedan down Main Street, a final pristine November moment with tragedy looming. Also, David Clewell’s sequence of poems Jack Ruby’s America, (Garlic Press, 2000) comes to mind. Both of these artworks create present moments based on inherited, public story – exploiting the fixed structure of cultural lore while engendering emotional imagery that privileges experience over knowledge. The freedom to re-imagine is prized – as if the facts and images spawned from events inevitably lull our sensibilities. Adam Braver’s novel operates in this wakeful sphere. The character of Jackie Kennedy is the collision point between official versions and the hurt of experience -- as well as the generator of additional lore.

braver1.jpgI was amazed to learn that Braver was born in 1963 since the narration is so attuned to the bruised sensibilities of anyone who lived through that weekend. Most affecting are two sections in particular. The first, a long vignette depicting Jackie Kennedy’s vigil with the casket in the presidential bedroom on Air Force One in the moments before and after Lyndon Johnson’s swearing in ceremony. The second, a final story about Vaughn Fergusen, a Ford Motor Company employee charged with the maintenance of the Lincoln limousine. After the FBI has collected their evidence, it is his job to clean the vehicle in the garage on Twenty-Second and M Street in DC. But there are many other moving and keenly imagined moments: the arrival of Air Force One, the planning for the funeral, the shock among White House kitchen employees and house staff, the autopsy.

braver8.jpgBraver selected a statement by Jackie Kennedy as the book’s epigraph: “I want minimum information given with maximum politeness.” There is something of her directive in his delicate if unflinching treatment. He also maintains in the Q-and-A below that eroding the fixed narrative of the JFK assassination is made easier by the fact that we all know it: the cultural myth collaborates in its own unraveling. I had originally intended to incorporate some of his response in this review, but his comments are so tersely relevant that I’ve decided to present them below in entirety:

Does the gestation of your novel begin with something personal in your own experience of JFK’s murder – or with a more intellectual and creative curiosity about the characters involved?

I would lean toward the latter, especially a creative curiosity. I was born in 1963, so I didn’t experience the event in a memorable way, although I certainly grew up in the shadow if it. As a young boy, I did see Bobby Kennedy in San Francisco on what I remember being the morning of the day he was shot. That memory of intense euphoria followed by the crash of grief has always stayed with me, and, to some extent, was part of what I drew on for this book. But, no, I’ve never been a Kennedy fanatic, nor an assassination buff.

What led you to believe that this story, so well known and grooved, had an untapped angle? And further, what in this story revealed itself to you as you proceeded?

Like many writers, I’m drawn to the off-camera moments. When I started writing the book—which really started with a single story—my interest was in the plane ride back to Dallas –that last private moment before the grief and legacy would forever be owned by the public. It may sound strange to say but I wasn’t as interested in the assassination per se; rather in the way it was an event that was creating mythology in real time. That’s what started to draw me into the stories of the other people on the sidelines—how they inadvertently (and often based only on a few minutes) became part of the modern mythology.

Your novel seems to behave in two ways, virtually opposed – in one sense, it dissolves the fixed narrative and imagery of the assassination and its aftermath, but in another sense, it relies on and perhaps exploits these things. Am I dreaming up this dichotomy – or is this a formal and thematic thing you consciously managed.

I wouldn’t say it was conscious, but there certainly is an interdependence. I think the ability to “dissolve the fixed narrative” is made possible — or at least made easier — because we all know the full narrative line. I remember a singer talking about how, when playing live, he often sang the harmony line, intuiting that the audience had the melody so fixed in their consciousness that they would hear it as one (if that makes sense). I think there is some of that going on here.

What did it take to establish the shape and slant of Jackie’s mind? Is this something you prepared for, or did you simply dive in?

For the purposes of what I was after, I really tried to see Jackie as someone who had just suffered a tremendously tragic loss. I had wanted to get to the base level of humanness, find those emotions that anybody would be experiencing in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event. Through researching I did keep coming across an undertone of an idea that she had always been someone who was afraid of “losing everything” (which one with more of a psychological bend could tie to her father and his downfall). That idea helped to shape her evolution through the book from someone who takes the grief and tries to take control of the destiny. But really, my objective never was to “figure her out.” Just to see her first as someone experiencing loss and tragedy, and then folding in the awareness of the mythology surrounding her.

Are there any models that influenced your formal decisions? Other writers whose work gave guidance to you?

In terms of narrative structure, there were no specific works that I modeled after (other than the amalgam of the hundreds of books that influenced me in their own ways). The narrative structure developed more out of boredom with my own writing process, where the narrative structure felt too rote. I was trying to find a way to freshen things up for myself. Many of the pieces began as straight narratives. Feeling a little bored with them, I would then rearrange the flow and the timelines, and, in that, start to find the stories or themes I really was after. The sentences also were very important to me. Although they typically are, I had a hyperawareness of wanting them all to be just right in this book. I didn’t want wasted moments that were fine as transitions. For that I kept a watchful eye on the writers whose sentences I admire so much -- Philip Roth, Amy Hempel, Truman Capote, Ann Beattie, just to name a few out of so, so many.

[Published November 1, 2008, 206 pp., $14.95 paperback]