It’s hard to imagine a better cast to present this crystal-clear cross-section of America at that moment. Mr. Rowell takes on and very beautifully handles each of these diverse characters – their outlook and opinion, their strivings, their day-to-day concerns. There is just the right balance here of the timeless – two parents fretting over their injured daughter in the hospital – and the period-specific – the despair felt by blacks and other idealists in the face of the out-of-control violence in America, reeling from a third assassination in four-plus years, and the second in just a few months.
This is a balanced, mature work of fiction, which always takes me by surprise in a debut piece, somehow. Mr. Rowell snaps his shutter on a set of fictional events bound together by the Kennedy funeral train, and then steps back. He offers no solutions; each narrative is left almost as arbitrarily as it is taken up, and this strikes me as exactly correct. Mr. Kennedy, a hero only slightly less important to blacks than Reverend King, was killed before truly accomplishing any of the goals he had promised to his constituency, and the lives of mourning supporters and opponents alike are no less open-ended in our open-ended United States. I wonder if Mr. Rowell means the title in an ironic sense – not every set of characters enjoys a merciful turn in these events – they’re the minority, in fact. But running through each narrative is the thread of the redemption that people expected could come of Senator Kennedy’s efforts. And therein lie some of the yearned-for mercies. And certain of the characters simply hope their lives will benefit in more prosaic ways, and it is a very clear measure of Mr. Rowell’s success that we share the hopes right alongside them.
The author has provided a very apt and accurate portrait of America at a singular time, and in the process, has blessed us with an equally singular debut novel.