In an alternative universe, John F. Kennedy was not killed in Dealey Plaza, but America is riven by Vietnam nonetheless.
Means has made a career writing deeply rendered short fiction: four collections, including The Spot (2010) and Assorted Fire Events (2000). His work is precise, relentless, unsentimental, an art of missed opportunities and missed connections, tracing, more than anything, the inevitability of loss. These same themes mark his first novel but in a manner we haven’t seen before. It’s not just the difference between long and short, although one of the pleasures of this dark and complex work is to see Means stretch out. Even more, however, it’s the novel’s manic energy, its mix of realism and satire, set in an alternative universe where Kennedy survived Dallas (and several other attempts on his life) to become a public martyr–in-the-making, “driving around in an open limo, with Jackie at his side, doing the hand-wave, the little movement, half-hearted, just a flick of the wrist, all slo-mo, the way the motorcade moved.” Kennedy is an ambiguous figure, architect of a failed Vietnam strategy that has led him to create the Psych Corps, a federal bureaucracy dedicated to wiping out the memories of returning veterans. The novel involves two such vets: Rake, who embarked on a Charlie Starkweather–type killing spree with his young girlfriend, and Singleton, an agent who must track the killer down. That’s the traditional part of the story, but this is not a traditional narrative. Rather, it offers a mélange of reference points—Starkweather, John Kennedy Toole (the novel is constructed as a book within a book, written by a suicide), and even, with its editor’s notes and contextual material, Nabokov—set in a world that has unraveled in its own apocalyptic way. One unintended irony is the role of Flint, Michigan, devastated by fire and environmental degradation, where part of the novel is set. But Means is less interested here in where we are going than where we have been. “Don’t accuse the kid of bending history,” he insists. “Accuse history of bending the kid. And the war, the war bent him, too. Like so many, he came back changed.”
Means' first novel is a compelling portrait of an imagined counterhistory that feels entirely real.