TIME ON MY HANDS: A Novel wrth Photographs By Peter Delacorte Scribner, 397 pages $23 Community Relations Director at Little Professor Book Co. & Adjunct English Lecturer at Eastern Michigan University The childhood fantasy of going back in time to make things right is probably as common as wishing to fly or to make that younger sibling magically disappear. The variation offered by "Time On My Hands" is almost irresistible: A mysterious stranger demonstrates his time machine for you, then offers you the opportunity to go back in time to stop Ronald Reagan from becoming president. Don 't kill him. Catch him in his Bmovie actor days and set him on a path that will steer him clear of the White House. Me, I'd grab a toothbrush and be on my way before you could say "We begin bombing in three minutes." But even in a fantasy, questions arise: Why Reagan, when you could, say, pop back a little further and toss the infant Hitler into a lion cage and prevent the Holocaust? The given answer: You don't speak Germán. Okay then. Why me? And the answer given to our protagonist is, 'Because you're a travel writer, used to adapting to new environments and cultures. And you're here now, and we gotta hurry because the two punks from the future who stole and then lost the time machine are hot on our trail, and . . . ' And these wonderfully pedestrian answers to the big questions make it clear that we are indeed in the realm of fantasy rather than hard science fiction. The novel is marketed as mainstream fiction and seems to be looking for an audience of the kind who enjoyed "Somewhere in Time" (Christopher Reeve goes back in time to Mackinac Island to romance Jane Seymour), and who admire Jack Finney's cult novel "Time And Time Again." Like Finney's book, this one is supplemented with period photographs to add to the atmosphere, and uses time travel not as a device to explore abstractions such as Time Paradoxes (Ex: What happens if you go back in time and kill your parents before you were born?) but as a catalyst for vi vidly illustrating an earlier era and allowing a modern character to interact with it as we would. Author Peter Delacorte, according to the jacket copy, "has writtenextensively about show business," is very successfulatevoking 1930s Hollywood. When he takes us to the Warner Brothers commissary, we can smell the tobacco and taste the mashed potatoes, and a look around the room shows not Legends but people who go to work every day. But if Finney made the pattern, Delacorte supplies much funnier material. In classic science fiction, any meddling with the past results in unexpected catastrophe: In Ray Bradbury's short story "The Sound of Thunder," the accidental death of one butterfly in the Jnrassic period transforms the world from Utopia to Dystopia. In StarTrek's mostpopular episode, Harían Ellison's "City on the Edge of Forever," the prevention of a pacifist' s early death in the Great Depression leads to Nazi victory in WWII. (Whoops!) These are cautionary tales about the dangers of hubris, of "playing God"; they have antecedents in Dr. Frankenstein and, further back, Oedipus and Icarus. Delacorte will have none of this. His protagonist makes the leap back to 1938 and before you can say, "Edith Keeler must die," he's saved the life of Lorna, the vivacious Warner Brothers employee who becomes his love interest. From there he almost gleefully tampers with history: What do you do when you need a job at Warner in order to get close to young "Dutch" Reagan? You "write" the script for "High Noon" (made in the fifties), submit it under the title of "Four O'clock," and get immediately hired. And if you've inadvertently caused a heart or a body to be broken , then, to use Reagan's catchphrase, "there you go again": back to before the trouble started, like a computer game that Iets you undo your last move. (Of course if you can do this endlessly , you don ' t have a compelling story ; Delacorte's answer is to throw an authorial monkey wrench into the time machine's, er, clockwork: Early on, the machine becomes damaged and unreliable - a machina without the horsepower to spring a deus.) These things make "Time On My Hands" a funnier than usual caper, but what makes the novel stay in mind is its depiction of Ronald Reagan. Our travel-writer hero contends with encounters with a mysterious mentor; the love interest who shouldn't have lived; the girl's jealous redbaiting ex-boyfriend & two punks from the future as villains, but the character that matters is the youthful, amiable, immensely likable and amusingly dim "Dutch." Reagan's presidency is portrayed as eight years of unmitigated catastrophe; a jumble of foolishness and knavery; the nadir of Hope and the apex (well, at least until the Gingrich era) of mean-spiritedness. But this is put in contrast with the sweet, Li'l Abnerish young Democrat who seems at this point to be constitutionally incapable of ever telling Welfare Cadillac anecdotes. The obvious question is, "So what happened?" but this isn't the question that makes the book interesting. In fact it offers a rather unsatisfyingly pat answer to that question. The premise of the plot is that the responsibility for the moral shambles that was the Reagan Presidency lies completely with Reagan 's handlers - he was a dupe, a puppet, not a villain, just a well-meaning guy who feil in with a bad crowd (starting way back in his first marriage). Make him unusable to that crowd, the plot line goes, and Carter gets a second term . I can't buy it, but I understand the appeal ; no one wants to dislike the Gipper. And that is what makes this novel - and Reagan himself - compelling. The question that energizes the book for me is implicit; something the protagonist (and the reader) seems to want to ask himself. Articulated, it would go something like: "What's WRONG with me? I KNOW the suffering his policies and his cronies have brought to untold thousands - but. God help me, part of me still LOVES this guy!" The novel brings out that insidious Reagan charisma, and makes us remember that very few of us, even AGENDA readers, were completely immune to it. Has there ever been a public figure whose deeds have been so reviled (even the Republican Party hasdistanced itself from much of it) while remaining so beloved? Nixon always looked like a sneak thief. President Clinton falls short on both sides of the equation. But Ronald Reagan, in the midst of robbing the poor or denying ascandal, could stand at the podium with a twinkle in his eye and a ready anecdote - and still melt the hearts of people who knew better. That ability of his makes one want to curse him, and curse one's self more. As his days dwindle, it' s what makes him, and this novel, memorable.
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