The story of a party girl who finds herself hanging out with the Rat Pack, the Kennedy Clan and La Costa Nostra simultaneously only to spend the rest of her life paying the consequences sounds like a great idea for a great novel. As The Go-Between proves, there is more to great novel than a great idea.
Frederick Turner starts out by creating a distinct barrier between the subject, Judith Campbell Exner, and the reader. Instead of telling her own story, JCE’s story is told by a old reporter who had access to her diaries but rarely quotes from them. Instead the reporter treats readers to his interpretation of her story. This might have worked had Turner not chosen to make the reporter the classic unreliable narrator, had the reporter fall in love with his own idea of JCE and then, for some truly unfathomable reason, make this the one reporter who can never seem to find the right words or the right analogy. Paragraphs of the narrator telling us that he can’t find the right word but it’s sort of like this, etc, might work once in the novel but more than once stops the novel dead in its track every single time. And that’s not counting the time he’s struggles for an analogy that he sort of remembers but doesn’t quite. Look it up on the internet already, buddy.
There is a tie for nadir of this failed experiment. Candidate One is the entire chapter entitled “Killing MistahCastro” (JFK, you’ll be shocked to learn, had an accent). Candidate Two is the narrator’s ruminations on the subject of “virginality”. What’s that, you say. You do not want to know and you certainly don’t want to know several pages of it.
That’s just the writing. The plot is not much better. Whether you’re a JFK fan, a JFK hater, a left-winger, a right-winger, a centrist, or a political agnostic there’s something in here to make you roll your eyes in disgust. Pick a cliché about these characters and chances are it’s here. So let me summarize for you: JFK and his father used the mafia to buy the nomination and then the election. (I was fascinated that the price of the Illinois and West Virginia primaries were both a briefcase full of money. One would think that on a per capita basis Illinois would be worth a suitcase full, but I digress.) But wait, there’s more! Sinatra and JFK liked threesomes! RFK was a saint! Peter Lawford was a tool! And … does anybody really still care about this foolishness? And if they do, why not read a trashy bio on any of the above and skip the faux handwringing about the corruption of it all.
I don’t claim to know what the truth is about any of the above allegations. This is fiction and Turner can do what he pleases as long as he makes it all matter. He fails to do that. From the minute he introduces her to when his narrator claims to be trying to rescue JCE from being “Jack Kennedy’s lay” he does her a disservice. Turner never makes Judith Campbell Exner a believable character and he very rarely shows her outside of her interactions with the cast of famous men. Jacqueline Susann could have written a better life story of JCE – at least she would have given her some humanity.