Book Review : Two Novels Go Back to the Past, Future

A Time to Remember by Stanley Shapiro (Random House: $16.95)

Replay by Ken Grimwood (Arbor House: $17.95)

Add these two entries to the list of time travel tomes; a slim, veritable novella by screenwriter Stanley Shapiro, and a longer, more eclectic work by Ken Grimwood.

Fiction makes strange bedfellows. Or something.

Shapiro, writer and producer of a flurry of popular movie classics like "Pillow Talk," "Operation Petticoat" and "Touch of Mink," briskly tells the tale of David Russell, a man obsessed with saving John F. Kennedy to prevent his brother's subsequent death in Vietnam.

Obsession meets opportunity when David crosses paths with an eccentric scientist named Koopman who claims to have invented a time machine. One thing leads to another, David zips back to 1963 Dallas to stop Kennedy's assassination, but arrives too late to thwart Oswald and moreover is mistakenly fingered as the presidential assassin.

Tragicomic misadventure ensues, as David's girlfriend and Koopman travel back to try and save David (each time changing everything that happens later --as if history is penciled in, and all reality is relative).

Swiftly Unfolding Tale

Shapiro's tale unfolds swiftly and deftly, not unlike a screenplay, never lingering too long with any one insight or emotion as if for fear the audience will get up and leave. There are marvelous passages and some strong, visual writing.

But it all tumbles forward too neatly and inevitably, and David's narration is so terribly passionate and earnest it seems almost satiric.

It's a weird book; unapologetically pro-Kennedy (although the fine Collier/Horowitz biography "The Kennedys" even quotes Robert Kennedy to the point that, had his brother John lived, he would have continued the Vietnam War). You keep feeling Shapiro's gift for light, romantic comedy struggling up through the overwrought prose.

You keep wishing it would surface.

"Replay," a Literary Guild selection, similarly involves time travel back to 1963, and a passing attempt to save Kennedy, but it is a broader, sturdier, more traditional novel.

Grimwood tells the story of Jeff Winston, a beleaguered journalist who dies in 1988 only to be mysteriously reincarnated at age 18 in 1963, with his life to live over again. He makes millions this time betting on things like the World Series and the Kentucky Derby, he lives an even emptier (but wealthier) life than he did before, and then dies again in 1988 and goes back to 1963 to . . . "replay" it all over again.

And then again. And again.

Unlike Shapiro's protagonist, Winston never radically changes the world's history, but each time he replays his life he does it differently, striving all the while to understand why he's caught in the cycle, what he's supposed to learn from it.

It's a fascinating premise, yet aside from some sharply drawn socio-historical references and backdrops, Grimwood seems content to construct a series of pithy pulp experiences for his protagonist, and an encyclopedia of pulp romances: the hedonistic sexual tigress, the frigid heiress, the pure college sweetheart, the brilliant true love who's also replaying her life. . . .

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