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Book Review

Thriller ‘Shift’ melds JFK and LSD

By Eric Liebetrau
September 24, 2010

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Whether you are a fervent believer or find them ridiculous, conspiracy theories are an overflowing fountain of material for both books and film. One of the greatest sources, of course, is the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Now, with the assistance of novelist Dale Peck, “Heroes’’ creator Tim Kring enters the fray with his debut thriller, “Shift,’’ a far-fetched alternative history/science-fiction hybrid about JFK’s demise.

It’s a fact that throughout the 1950s and ’60s, the CIA and other organizations covertly experimented with mind-altering substances — usually LSD and other psychotropics — in order to expand the minds, and therefore military effectiveness, of its agents. Much of this history has been documented, but Kring takes it a step further, implicating LSD in the JFK assassination.

The book, the first in a trilogy, opens with a seemingly prophetic sequence that takes place in 2012 — a heavy-handed device to foreshadow coming installments. Kring introduces Melchior, a rogue operative just returned from Cuba in November 1963 after his failed attempt to assassinate Castro with an exploding cigar.

Melchior, we learn, is part of a group of agents who trained under the Wiz, a special-ops guru who plucked his charges from orphanages at an early age and trained them in the dark art of espionage.

The agent’s latest task is to trail the government’s newest drug-enhanced soldier, Chandler Forrestal, whose training begins without his knowledge when a massive dose of LSD is slipped into his drink by prostitute Naz Haverman. But Naz is not your average escort — she’s been hired in the past to execute just such druggings. This time, however, she decides to dose herself along with the mark, beginning a multiday trip in which she and Chandler somehow fall hopelessly in love.

When he finally snaps out of his epic hallucination, Chandler realizes that the LSD has interacted with his brain chemistry, allowing him to not only access regions of his mind he never knew existed, but also to read the thoughts of others. He doesn’t completely grasp the magnitude of his powers, so he and Naz travel to Millbrook, N.Y., to discuss the situation with the head proponent of LSD, Timothy Leary, who purports the existence of the “Orphic Gate in the human brain,’’ behind which lies the possibility of “an ethereal bond linking consciousnesses the mental equivalent of a radio wave, needing only a receiver tuned to the right frequency to allow for instantaneous communication a thousand times clearer than mere words and gestures could ever convey.’’

Chandler, apparently, is tuned to the right frequency, and high dosages of LSD are the key to his Orphic gate. “Somehow,’’ says Leary, “he is able to broadcast his thoughts his hallucinations into the minds of the people around him.’’

Unfortunately, Melchior crashes the party at Millbrook, separating Chandler and Naz and setting them on the run, chased by Melchior, the CIA, a naive FBI agent, and a host of Russian agents intent on using the Orpheus mechanism to advance the Soviet position in the Cold War arms race.

Numerous other players join the search, as the action whips between dizzying numbers of points of view, zipping from Cuba to Millbrook to Boston to Washington, D.C., to Dallas to CIA headquarters. Melchior eventually homes in on Chandler, and while desperately seeking Naz, Chandler also tries to capture “Caspar,’’ another protégé of the Wiz who turns out to be a major player in the JFK assassination.

In an effort to tether the plot to conventional history, Kring spikes the narrative with excerpts from the Monroe Doctrine, a perfunctory literary trick that adds little to the story. Further, his portrayals of Leary, Richard Alpert, J. Edgar Hoover, Mafia kingpin Sam Giancana, and other cultural touchstones from the 1950s and ’60s are juvenile, disrespectful, and occasionally puerile, not to mention anchored in a wildly misguided assessment of the effects of psychedelic drugs.

In particular, the author’s descriptions of Chandler’s hallucinations are consistently stilted and uninspired. “Sidewalk Steve’s brain was like a cross between a magnet and a quicksand. It seemed to suck Chandler in and down, into a soup of chicken broth and breasts and rainbows.’’ Huh?

It’s possible that the hyperactive plot, swashbuckling dialogue, and conspiracy-theory atmospherics will translate successfully to the big screen — much like Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series — but as a novel, this kickoff to the Gate of Orpheus trilogy is about as enjoyable as a bad acid trip.

Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews. He can be reached at eliebetrau@kirkusreviews.com.

SHIFT By Tim Kring and Dale Peck

Crown, 356 pp., $26