Picks and Pans Review: The Fourth K

updated 02/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Mario Puzo

The President's name is Francis Xavier Kennedy, linked by blood to the uncles who preceded him on America's political platform. He is young, handsome, ruthless and, of course, rich. He enters the White House as expected, filled with idealistic intent, but soon finds that idealism crushed beneath a political engine driven by deals, schemes and payoffs. Up against an entrenched system, President Kennedy must compromise to achieve his goals.

Then, events fuel a change in the President's methods: His daughter is murdered by a band of terrorists intent on a worldwide takeover. This crime, linked with the assassinations of his two uncles more than 40 years before, pushes Kennedy away from pacifism and toward vengeance. As he sees it, he now has been stripped of choice. He must fight fire with annihilation: "He had power, he would use that power. He could make his enemies tremble, he could make their saliva bitter in their mouths. He could sweep away all the small insignificant men with their cheap tubes of iron, all those who had brought such tragedy into his life and to his family."

Large chunks of The Fourth K seem headline-fresh as an embattled President is matched up against the terrorist high command and its crazed leader based in a small, previously nondescript, Middle Eastern country. That confrontation combines with the conceit that the President is a Kennedy (complete with all the baggage that last name carries) to transform the novel into-a high-profile, revenge-driven soap opera. As the story plays itself out on a world stage, Puzo keeps it moving with relentless, missilelike steadiness.

This is Puzo's first novel in six years (since The Sicilian) and his most entertaining since The Godfather. His years spent writing screenplays (The Godfather trio and Superman I and II) have given his fiction a clearer and sharper feel, allowing his natural storytelling abilities a much freer hand.

The Fourth K is one part thriller (minus the cumbersome weight of Tom Clancy's technospeak) and one part rewritten history (but with a better sense of language and style than Jack Higgins) with a couple of parts of sex and scandal tossed in for added spice. Rolled into one tightly paced novel, those ingredients make for a recipe too intriguing to ignore. (Random House. $22)

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