:: Article

Other Sides of the Event

By Karl Whitney.


Adam Braver, Nov 22, 1963: A Novel, Tin House Books, 2008

Adam Braver’s historical novel takes place on the inauspicious, undeniably world-changing, day that President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas. The Kennedy assassination is one of the most theorized and mythologized events of the 20th Century, in popular culture, in historical study, and in fiction. It stands variously as proof of far-reaching conspiracy, as a metaphor for the death of American innocence, and as one of many excuses for the political disengagement that was a partial by-product of the 1960s. It stands for almost everything, and one would think we’d be tired of it by now.

However, Braver, simply by limiting his focus to the day of the assassination (with some digressions forward and backward in time) largely avoids the inherent problems of writing about such a spectacular event. Instead, using historical documents and, seemingly, the author’s own interviews with some of those who were present in Dallas on that day, Braver seeks to uncover the ordinary people’s experiences of an extraordinary event. This is very much the strength of the novel, yet it also exposes the novel’s weakness. One finds more interest in the narrative of the men charged with transporting Kennedy’s body to a hospital in Dallas than the (surely largely fictionalised) internal agonies suffered by Jacqueline Kennedy on the lonely flight from Dallas back to Washington D.C.

This would not be so much of a problem if Jackie’s story made up one of many, but Braver has placed her as the emotional centre of his book, a role that she – at least as she’s portrayed here – seems incapable of adequately fulfilling. Jackie provides too enigmatic and aloof a peg on which to hang the story Braver wishes to tell. The result is that the scenes drawn from the allegedly more mundane everyday lives of locals eclipse the staid scenes of political procedure.

Braver has previously written novels about Abraham Lincoln (‘Mr Lincoln’s Wars’) and the actress Sarah Bernhardt (‘Divine Sarah’), which both focused on a specific event in the life of each figure. The constraint of time provided by the historical event is clearly important to Braver, giving his novels a general shape and ensuring a chronologically constrained discipline. As with this novel, Mr Lincoln’s Wars was also narrated from multiple perspectives.

Another distinctive quality of Braver’s writing is the interest in the fate of the objects that crossed paths with Kennedy that day: it turns out that the bronze casket in which the men transported the President’s body to the Dallas hospital was an expensive model, and was used only for the journey between Dealey Plaza and the medical centre; subsequently, his body was transferred to a mid-priced casket and the bronze one placed in the National Archives. When the funeral home attempted to bill the government for services rendered, the government haggled over the cost. They were forced to revise the price down, and ultimately, in 1966, in a properly ludicrous touch that is a sign of the pervading unreality of the times, the bronze casket was weighed down with sandbags and dropped into the sea off the Delaware coast.

It is in dealing with these aspects of his narrative that Braver shows himself to be a writer of acute judgement and talent. The degree of attention paid by the author to the micro-levels of history lends his novel a humanity and perspective that had, I feared, been drained from popular representations of the assassination. His achievement, although by no means complete, is both highly welcome and justly enviable.


Karl Whitney is a journalist, researcher and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 7th, 2009.