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Review: Jack 1939, by Francine Mathews
Riverhead, 2012. 361 pp. $27

Read solely as a thriller, this improbable page-turner obeys all the conventions. It has a sexy, daring hero, who gets into hair-raising scrapes not even a genie could possibly escape, yet of course, he manages. He beds the most beautiful, passionate woman in Europe, though she’s older, married, and infinitely more worldly than he. And–most importantly–he saves the world to the extent anybody can in the spring and summer of 1939, besting none other than the sociopath Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo (and future architect of the Final Solution).

Aaron Shikler's posthumous official portrait of JFK, 1970 (Wikimedia Commons via White House Historical Association, public domain)

Aaron Shikler’s posthumous official portrait of JFK, 1970 (Wikimedia Commons via White House Historical Association, public domain).

In other words, you could read Jack 1939 and say, “Tell me another.” Or you could lay it down and wonder why you wasted your time on yet another spy novel embodying the clichés that both bedevil and drive the genre.

But you could also read this novel as a fictional biography of John F. Kennedy as a callow, idealistic youth, and as a meticulously researched historical tale of a world destroying itself, with delicious portraits of FDR, J. Edgar Hoover, Churchill, and other leaders thrown in. To the degree that Jack 1939 surpasses the clichés, it does so because the author has thought deeply about her protagonist and drawn a coherent, fascinating portrait of a charming, tortured, sickly, underachieving young man, humiliated by his parents, especially his loathsome father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who never tires of telling him he’ll amount to nothing.

It’s Joe P. who creates the key problem of this novel for FDR, the president who appointed him ambassador to Britain. Kennedy’s an appeaser, an isolationist determined to keep the United States out of any European war. So when Roosevelt wants a fresh pair of eyes to report from Europe, unbeholden to the State Department (or anyone else) he taps young Jack, whose cover is that he plans to interview European politicians for his senior thesis at Harvard. What Jack doesn’t know, at first, is how far his father has gone to deal with the Germans, or how far he’s willing to go, a secret that will shake him to the roots. So Jack faces dangers not only from political enemies but from the worst place of all, his own tortured psyche. It’s a great setup, and in case you needed further trouble, there’s Jack’s undiagnosed Addison’s disease, which has most people figuring he won’t live to see thirty.

But FDR senses that young Kennedy has much more to him than anyone suspects.

Jack might be sick and his record might be checkered, but he was one of those rare souls completely at home in the world. It didn’t matter that he was Irish or Catholic or that his father was regarded as an unprincipled cad; Jack slouched into the most breathless of WASP bastions in his careless clothes and threw his legs over armchairs like he’d owned them from birth. His ease was admired and slavishly imitated; his quips and sarcasm circulated like a kissing disease.

However, once in Europe, Jack quickly learns that his charm and social gifts will get him only so far. They’re particularly useless when it comes to repelling Heydrich’s assassins or rescuing a valuable list of names for which many people have already died or a piece of military hardware that everyone wants. So he must live by his wits and luck, both of which are considerable. But he makes many mistakes, not least for his terrible temper, hooked up like a lightning rod to his sense of injury. I love that stroke, which seems psychologically astute, portraying Jack as oversensitive to slight, just what you’d expect from the child of emotionally abusive parents.

His skirt-chasing doesn’t really satisfy him, because he hates being touched, physically or emotionally. Mathews supposes that he was no great shakes as a Harvard Lothario, “deflowering Radcliffe virgins,” until he meets the gorgeous, brave woman I mentioned above. Nevertheless, Jack’s affectionate and loving with his favorite sibling, his sister, Kathleen (known as Kick for her natural vivacity), and those scenes leave the impression of a very lonely young man dying for the real connection he could never seem to find.

What I find least believable, though, is that FDR would keep a secret radio transmitter by which he and Jack communicate. I’m also none too sure whether Jack’s apple fell that far from his father’s tree. I remember JFK as president, and I’ll never forget the day he was murdered. But I’ve come to reexamine the myths in which I used to believe, including his supposed brilliance at foreign affairs, of which Cuba and Vietnam furnish prime counterexamples.

Nevertheless, Jack 1939 takes place before all that, and it’s intriguing, sometimes poignant, to see the future president struggle with the world as he saw it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.