GHOSTS OF AMERICA

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James Roth III—who’s known as “Herzog” to his friends, for unexplained reasons—is a teacher, a Vietnam veteran, and the author of two “great American novels…about Jackie Kennedy and Valerie Solanas respectively, which have gotten me laid since the 1980s and won me just about every literary award possible,” he says. Recently, however, he’s been plagued by writer’s block. One night, while spying on his nude female neighbor with a telescope, he’s visited by the ghost of one of his muses: Jacqueline Kennedyherself. Later, Valerie Solanas’ spirit visits him, as well. The former is resentful, and the latter plain angry at Herzog and about various aspects of American culture. But will these two women help him to understand the tragedies in his own life, which have turned him into a different sort of ghost? This is a slim novel, divided into chapters that are rarely much longer than a page in length. Hagood ably plays ventriloquist to Jackie and Valerie, narrating each of the characters, in turn, with elegant, elegiac monologues. Here, for instance, Jackie describes her life after the assassination of her husband: “I continued to repeat violent history to everyone who would listen in the exact same words, in a flat tone of voice, as if in a fugue. It was not something I could stop. It was as though I had been overtaken. I needed an exorcist.” But although all three major characters are impressively rendered, they offer readers few surprises. Herzog feels like a mere caricature of a 20th-century American male novelist, and Jackie won’t upend readers’ expectations about the real-life historical figure. The somewhat more obscure Valerie is more intriguing, but she’s given the least space of the three. The abbreviated A Christmas Carol structure suggests that there will be some sort of reckoning, and there is—it has to do with the writer’s view of women—but there isn’t enough of a solid narrative surrounding it to make it feel real and earned.

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