11/02/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
by D.M. Thomas
After paddling readers through a steamy Freudian dreamscape in his much extolled The White Hotel, it's not surprising that British novelist and poet Thomas has chosen to navigate the shoals of one of our most enduring collective nightmares—the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Like his eight earlier novels, Flying in to Love surrealistically blends public fact and personal fantasy. Though filled with vivid, sometimes disturbing images, the novel ends up—like a dream only half remembered—tantalizingly insubstantial.
Thomas uses the emotionally charged material to explore themes with which Hotel guests will be familiar: the collective unconscious and its connection to private mythmaking, the relativity of time and history, the possibility of the soul's permanence. The narrative unreels through the dreams, thoughts, memories and sexual yearnings of the tragedy's principal actors—including Jack, Jackie and Oswald—as well as several real and imagined bit players, chief among them a young nun who is one of the last to speak to JFK and becomes obsessed with the assassination.
With seeming ease, Thomas leaps not only from one character to the next but backward and forward in time—now rewinding to the President's reflections as Air Force One flies into Dallas's Love Field on Nov. 22, then fast-forwarding to fantasize a randy scene that might have taken place at the Johnson ranch that evening had Kennedy not been shot. All this reads remarkably smoothly—except for Thomas's occasional stumbles on American vernacular. Nothing suspends disbelief faster than a JFK who wonders whether Gov. John Connally's wife, Nell, "lays around," that is, sleeps around.
The novel does have more serious problems. Giving such prominence to an Everywoman like the fictional Sister Agnes may have seemed like a good idea, but in practice she and her colleagues at the Sacred Heart Convent are out of their league among boldly depicted larger-than-life figures. More importantly, while the kaleidoscopic views of experience in The White Hotel ultimately coalesce through Freudian analysis, with these well-known yet murky events no such resolution is possible. Instead the journey leaves the reader, like Sister Agnes, merely pondering the unknowable. (Scribner's, $20)