Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Book: “The Man Who Knew Kennedy" by Vance Bourjaily

I vividly remember getting my first package from The Literary Guild. The Guild was the chief rival to the Book-of-the-Month-Club, its taste occasionally a bit less “lofty” than the decidedly middlebrow BOMC. I joined circa 1964, and my introductory selections included three Hemingway novels, the collected works of Shakespeare and “A Treasury of Great Mysteries” (and yes, they remain on various shelves to this day). When I say the Guild was less lofty than the BOMC, I mean its monthly chief selections could (at times) steer closer to pulp. “Hurry Sundown” an epic about the south (it came in two volumes) was prime pulp (it also inspired a large block of cinematic cheese directed by Otto Preminger), as was “Where Eagles Dare” by Alistair MacLean (absurd but damn entertaining). Just two examples.
But the Guild also could live up to its “literary” aspirations, witness “The Man Who Knew Kennedy,” published in 1967 (I still remember the illustration accompanying the monthly Guild bulletin: two men on a sailboat. At the time, however, I declined the book, but remained curious all these many years since). Vance Bourjaily has written some 10 novels in his 87 years, the most famous “Brill Among the Ruins.” He taught writing for decades at the University of Iowa, and I’m betting his students learned how to write clear, evocative prose and develop cleanly defined characters. The narrator, Barney James, is a WWll vet, as is his best friend, Dave Doremus, who is the man who knew JFK while both were convalescing in the Pacific. The novel is set on the day of the assassination and several months following, with flashbacks, including a brilliant set piece describing Barney and Dave sailing along the New England coastline just after the war.
Bourjaily’s early novels were called “Hemingwayesque,” but this novel reminds me more of Irwin Shaw in style, with a bit of John O’Hara in terms of class observations. It’s a joy to read, lacking the woeful solipsism that plagues so many contemporary novels. Bourjaily deserves a wider audience. I’ll certainly search out his other work.


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