The Go-Between: A Novel of the Kennedy Years
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
US: May 2010
Gossip and literary fiction rarely mix well. Truman Capote tried to build his last novel, Answered Prayers out of gossip, and though he never finished the work, the few chapters he published made enemies out of many long time friends. ‘That dirty little toad is never coming to my parties again’, was a typical response from the jet set. Saul Bellow tried a similar approach in his final novel Ravelstein, and the resulting controversy forced him to rewrite portions of the text.
In The Go-Between, Frederick Turner might well run the same risk—and may be saved from threats and accusations only because most of the real life characters he chronicles are already dead. Turner focuses here on the late Judith Campbell (1934-1999), best known as the woman who had overlapping affairs with President John F. Kennedy and mob boss Sam Giancana. Along the way, Campbell was also involved with Frank Sinatra and crossed paths with a number of other famous figures from the world of politics and entertainment.
If her involvement with the rich and famous had merely been a matter of bedroom etiquette, Campbell might have escaped public notoriety. But Campbell’s activities eventually took her into murky legal situations that caught the attention of the FBI, and later an investigative committee led by Idaho Senator Fred Church. When called to testify in 1975, Campbell denied that she had been a courier between the White House and the Mafia, but shortly before her death she admitted to serving as a go-between when Kennedy and Giancana plotted an assassination attempt on Fidel Castro—a role that provides both the title and central story of Turner’s novel.
No shortage of fireworks here, obviously. However, if Turner appears to have drawn his story line from the tabloid press, his approach in The Go-Between will defy any expectations that our author is interested in dishing the dirt. Instead of kiss-and-tell, we get a very acute psychological novel, one that probes deeply into motives and misgivings, and never settles for the merely tawdry. At times while reading this novel, I was half-convinced that the author was playing an elaborate trick on his readers—enticing them onward with promises of juicy disclosures, but then delivering sober soul-searching.
The Go-Between begins with a down-and-out newspaper reporter stumbling upon Judy Campbell’s unpublished diaries. He has dreams of a huge publishing advance and a runaway bestseller, as he tries to reconstruct a complex web of events and relationships involving the leading public figures of the late-]50s and early ‘60s. His researches take him on the posthumous trail of the beautiful woman whose innocent enthusiasm for the young Senator from Massachusetts, then in the early stages of his presidential campaign, turned her into a pawn in a high stakes game beyond her ability to control or even comprehend.
The conventional view of Campbell is of a shrewd operator, able to manipulate the high and mighty in advancing her own interests. Turner reverses this story, presenting a young woman whose very naiveté destroys her life. When the President asks her to deliver some papers to a mob boss, she agrees with the confidence that she is doing something to serve her country’s best interests. But her efforts as a go-between attract the interest of J. Edgar Hoover, and soon she finds that her lover might be the most powerful man in the United States, yet he is either unwilling or unable to protect her from harassment and bullying from the FBI. She seeks help from Sam Giancana, but that type of protection also comes at a cost and even greater risk.
At times, Turner’s prose seems ready to collapse into clichés. His concept of how a journalist talks often comes across as anachronistic, more akin to the dialogue from a ‘20s pulp fiction tale than anything you might find in a modern-day newsroom. Yet just when you might have given up on our author, he will deliver a series of insights into the inner life of Judith Campbell that are so acute that they transcend the fictional setting and will set you wondering about the real life woman who inspired this novel.
So you may come to this book enticed by the gossip, but you will finish it with deeper matters on your mind. Turner will leave you caring deeply about Judith Campbell, and considering her more as a tragic figure than as a famous “kept” woman. More to the point, you will also be left mulling the type of political and social environment that could produce a story of these dimensions. That may be the greatest achievement of The Go-Between—namely the author’s ability to dazzle you with the glamour and power of life at the top, but also leave you reeling from the betrayals and abuses at their core.