I made one huge mistake with Jim Lehrer’s new book, “Top Down.” I started reading it with the idea that I’d get through a few chapters, then run some errands.
The errands were postponed.
“Top Down” is a novel based around the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas. The details of the assassination and its chaotic aftermath are amazingly vivid, as Lehrer was covering JFK’s Dallas visit. In an Author’s Note at the end, he relates his experiences, and assures us that the story is fiction.
But it’s remarkable fiction. Jack Gilmore is a Washington correspondent for a Dallas newspaper. On the fifth anniversary of the assassination, a DC press club meets to compare accounts from different reporters who’d covered that grim Dallas day. Gilmore’s story stood out: he had asked the Secret Service agent at Love Field whether JFK’s limousine would have the bubble top on or off. The agent, Van Walters, checked the weather, and the early morning rain had cleared. He ordered that the bubble top be removed.
We all know what happened: thousands of books and documentaries, hundreds of conspiracy theories, and that vivid and horrific killshot image in the Zapruder film. Would it have been different had the bubble top been left on?
That is the question that haunts Secret Service Agent Van Walters. He blames himself for JFK’s death. He is convinced that his decision to remove the bubble top—which was not at all bullet-proof—cost the president his life. Agent Walters begins deteriorating that very night, the guilt eating away at his soul.
The AP runs an article about the press club meeting, and mentions Jack Gilmore’s story specifically. Shortly thereafter, Jack gets a phone call from Marti Walters, Agent Walters’s daughter, begging to meet with him.
Marti is a twenty-year-old American Lit student at the University of Pennsylvania, and she has a problem. Her father’s depression is literally killing him, and she’s convinced that Jack can help him relive that day, and hopefully exorcise the demon within him. Jack isn’t sure he can help, but he’s intrigued by Marti, and the reporter inside him knows this story could be a blockbuster.
I was hooked from the beginning. Lehrer’s style draws you quickly into the characters’ lives, and he punctuates the flashbacks with staccato bursts of prose. The pacing is steady, and the characters are intriguing, especially Marti and Jack. There was just no good place to stop and put down this book.
And it’s very rare that I pick up a book and read it in one sitting. Life gets in the way. With “Top Down,” I was totally immersed in the story; life just had to wait till I finished.
Most Highly Recommended