Book Review: Top Down

Top Down: a Novel of the Kennedy Assassination
Jim Lehrer

“Where were you . . .?”

“Where were you when President John F. Kennedy was shot?”

For people of a certain age, this question and its attendant discussions have been popping up for 50 years. November 22, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Younger generations have their own “Where were you . . .?” questions and answers for the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion that occurred on January 28, 1986, and for the terrorist attacks from al-Qaeda upon New York City and the Washington D. C. metropolitan area on September 11, 2001. These three powerful events force us to reflect on our own mortality and stir our concerns for a sense of safety in our current and sometimes crazy world.

With this anniversary of JFK’s assassination, one can expect many books, articles, commemorations and television specials to come out and take place this year. Much is already out there including straightforward histories, commentary, conspiracy theories and conspiracy thrillers. There is no shortage of material in multiple formats for all ages and types of readers on the subject of our 35th president. Ask your nearby librarian to show you the materials that are available. The Social Sciences Department at the Birmingham Public Library (Central) holds a particularly large JFK collection.

Just last month Jim Lehrer (PBS NewsHour) released his 21st novel titled Top Down: a Novel of the Kennedy Assassination. Here Lehrer moves beyond the standard “Where were you . . .?" question to ask the question “What if . . .?”

The novel, itself, begins five years after 1963 with a journalist (loosely based on Lehrer who was actually a Dallas correspondent on the scene on that fateful day) preparing his statements for a small panel making commemorative comments on their roles on that day. Jack Gilmore (Lehrer) speaks about his involvement in finding out for a fellow correspondent whether the bubble top would be on or off the limousine for JFK’s ride through Dallas. He documents that he asked a Secret Service agent at Love Field this very question. The agent spoke to a colleague by phone and then responded to Gilmore that the top would be down given that the rainy weather had finally subsided.

Gilmore was excited to be included in this prestigious program, but was unaware that “another shoe was about to drop.” Days later a young college student approached him seeking his help. Apparently, her father was the Secret Service agent whom had been consulted about the bubble top at Love Field five years earlier.

“What if . . .?”

Would the President have survived if the top been on? Was that the Secret Services agent’s fault? Was it the fault of his colleague he spoke to that day? Was it the clearing weather’s fault? Was it Kennedy’s fault for preferring the top down in order to be closer to the people he served as the leader of a nation so highly regarded? Who knows, but we all know how erosive and corrosive guilt can be regardless of whether it is genuine or imagined. The book explores these conjoined themes well. All true (non-fictional) characters in the novel are portrayed with due respect and integrity. The fictional characters do not detract nor do they distract. This reader is reminded that the best historical fiction can bring history so vividly to life in a way in which nonfiction accounts occasionally fail.

As a long-time viewer of the PBS NewsHour, I felt as if the author, Jim Lehrer, were reading this novel aloud to me. His familiar voice and the steady, matter-of-fact tone of his writing were somehow comforting without ever being trite, saccharine or maudlin. This swift read felt cozy, but not in the Miss Marple mystery genre sense. It just felt right and, moreover, it is a refreshing departure from the sensational conspiracy theories that have inundated the literature for 50 years.

Read this novel to reflect on the legacy of JFK and to remember, or for younger readers, to imagine that unforgettable day 50 years ago.

Check it out.

Click here to visit a piece posted several days ago on this blog that focuses on recent JFK titles.

The display window at Central Library showcasing books on the Kennedy assassination.

Submitted by David Blake
Fiction Department
Central Library


Anonymous said…
The library only has two books on Kennedy to display?
Melinda Shelton said…
Thanks for your comment Anonymous. The library has over 500 books about Kennedy. Here is a link books with the subject heading of Kennedy.