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Johnny Moon by Mike Palecek

Johnny Moon

by Mike Palecek

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Some historical events take on such significance they become ingrained in a nation's culture. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is one such event. In part because of the conspiracy theories that have grown up around it, nearly 50 years later we still see a variety of books, both novels and nonfiction, published about it. The assassination and the questions of conspiracy that arose almost immediately are the building blocks for Mike Palecek's latest novel, Johnny Moon. And while the conspiracy theories are a driving force, certain readers will see an ability to evince the times as the novel's real strength.

The title character is a third grader in a Catholic school when Kennedy is killed. Johnny is flush with not only the hopes and dreams of a third grader -- becoming physically fit in response to Kennedy's promotion of fitness -- but the hopes and dreams that reflect the Kennedy Administration more broadly -- going to the Moon and fighting Communism. In fact, Johnny is fond of quoting the phrase from Kennedy's speech announcing the lunar program, that Americans pursue such goals "not because they are easy, but because they are hard." This is a unique time in American history, post-50s but before the tumult and disarray of the late 1960s. It is a time that seemed so much simpler and clear.

Johnny's story reflects the disruption of the times. The sister of a nun at his school witnesses the assassination. Glimpses of her story reveal various facts with which anyone who has read about the conspiracy theories is familiar. Johnny, occasionally picked on for his seemingly odd ways, becomes the leader of an odd assortment of people who come to believes the school boiler possesses special powers, powers that among other things may reveal what really happened in Dallas. Johnny leads classmates, nuns and a couple maintenance workers on a type of vision quest to assuage the rupture in their previously ordered world and the suggestion that the assassination may not be as it seems.

At times, this search may strike readers as a tad confusing. Moreover, it doesn't quite ring true the Catholic school environment in which it occurs. This is surprising because perhaps the strongest part of the book is Palecek's ability to capture the culture and and atmosphere of Catholic schools at the time. As he notes in a prologue, in the 1960s "every berg, town and ville in the Midwest boasted a Catholic block of school, rectory and convent." That was certainly the case in my hometown, where I was a second grader in a Catholic school at the time of the Kennedy assassination. The school took up half block. The rectory and sat on a quarter of a block across the street. And even though my hometown had a population of less than 15,000 at the time, it had two Catholic schools.

There is no doubt the Catholics took pride in JFK being the first Catholic president. That pride bolstered the sense of exhilaration many others in the country felt. But it also bolstered the Catholic education system being one in which patriotism and religion went hand-in-hand, particularly when it came to "the Red Menace." It was virtually doctrine among students in Catholic schools that unless the government continued to battle Communism, the Catholic Church would be a primary target when the Russians invaded. Regardless of the size of the town, children in Catholic schools "realized they would be soon rounded up by Russian soldiers and made to line up in the playground and say there is no God."

Thus, although Johnny Moon's main theme purports to be the Kennedy assassination, those of a certain era, particularly those who attended a Catholic elementary schools, will see it differently. To us, Johnny's life and beliefs are a surprisingly insightful and accurate commentary on an aspect of life never forgotten but rarely finding its way into print.

(Originally posted at A Progressive on the Prairie.)
  PrairieProgressive | Nov 6, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0980135494, Paperback)

Johnny Moon represents a new direction for Mike Palecek. Straying from his traditional emphasis on present-day or near-future adult protagonists who end up in prison when they refuse to kowtow to the powers that be, Palecek's new novel features Johnny Moon, a likable 1963 schoolkid. Johnny, his schoolmates, Sister Mark and the other faculty, and a couple of workmen one of whom has been living in the basement of the Catholic school. The unlikely cast of characters are involved in an even more unlikely scenario: the boiler may actually be a time machine, the nuns aliens, and President Kennedy's death may not have been the act of a lone Communist gunman. Reality mixes with the absurd and it's often hard to tell the difference. Johnny didn't set out to be the leader of an underground club. He just wanted to win a physical fitness award and maybe he would get to go to the moon. The President had caught his imagination and that of the whole country. It was a magical time when it seemed that anything could happen, and probably would. Americans would lead the whole world into a wonderful new age of freedom and prosperity for everyone. Or not. The privileged and corrupt few who really run the world were just not going to let that happen. And those who saw, who realized there was something ugly underneath the facade--those people had best keep out of sight, keep their mouths shut, hear nothing, just like those famous monkeys. Because if they did see, hear, or speak of evil, it just might come to visit them and they would probably not survive the encounter. All this is not what Mike says in his new book. Not exactly. Certainly not explicitly. But it's what I got out of the highly disturbing experience of reading it. The first thing I told my friends who asked what I thought of Johnny Moon was that I thought I liked it. They said, "You thought...you aren't sure?" And I told them that when I got to the end I didn't feel sure of much of anything anymore. I wasn't completely sure what happened, in the book or while I was reading it. I had somehow gotten lost in that space between conscious and unconscious, reality and surreality. It was as if I'd returned to the sixties in my own time machine, and anything was possible again. But the evil ones were not hiding any more as they did then. The evil was in plain sight for anyone who allowed themselves to see. Johnny Moon is frightening and enchanting, fringe and mainstream, young and old, crazy and sane. It's maddening and frustrating and I'm very glad I read it.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:33 -0400)

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