That, of course, was the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, an event of such monumental proportions that many Americans still recall, with crystalline clarity, what they were doing and where they were when they heard the shocking news. And just like 9-11, the impact will be felt for generations to come, marking the end of an era of security and comfort.
Jack Engelhards “The Days of the Bitter End“ is a vivid fictional account of the last time America was shaken so dramatically out of a blissful societal slumber, as well as a fond trip back to a time and place that was a catalyst for much of the passion, drama, and idealism of the turbulent 1960‘s.
Engelhard is best known for having written “Indecent Proposal,“a bestseller that was made into a popular film starring Demi Moore and Robert Redford, though hes also authored of “The Horseman,“ “Deadly Deception,“ and the award-winning “Escape from Mount Moriah: A Refugee Childs Triumph,“ which depicts his childhood adventures after his family fled his home country of France to escape the Nazi invasion. In addition, his weekly op-ed newspaper column, “A View of the Absurd“ is distributed nationally and he has had success as a playwright.
“The Days of the Bitter End“ is another significant accomplishment for this versatile writer, and resonates with the sort of dialogue and imagery that not only rings with credibility, but instantly evokes a “you are there“ feel for the reader.
The tale begins with an introduction to four roommates who represent a cross-section of the youth who were lured to Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. There is Cliff Harris, who does a Kennedy impersonation so uncannily that hes almost better than the real thing; Ben Jaffa, an enigmatic doorman at the hipper-than-hip Bitter End nightclub, home to rising stars like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and whose life mirrors much of Engelhards; Richie Bell, a rich kid from Connecticut who wants to turn his back on his privileged upbringing in favor of a Bohemian lifestyle; and Howie, a wisecracking dufus everyone unwisely tends to underestimate.
Harris occupies much of the storys focus, and his own rise and fall is a metaphor for pre and post-Kennedy assassination America. Englehard is an efficient storyteller who gets right to the action, and in the second chapter, the stage is set for the young performers downfall:
“Cliff Harris, Americas most popular comedic performer, was on stage and deep into his frolicsome Kennedy impersonation when word arrived upon the whisper of ravens that Kennedy had been shot. First came the rumor, heard only by a few, but then came the word, which spread as a disbelieving murmur from aisle to aisle in the darkened basement theater. The 200 hipsters and tourists crowded elbow-to-elbow at the Caféé Muse, on Bleecker Street in New Yorks Greenwich Village, collectively gasped and fell into an electrified hush when the announcement was made. Though stunned like all the rest, Cliff persevered. He said: “I‘m okay. Can‘t you see?“ So much had he begun to believe that he was, in fact, John F. Kennedy, and refused to believe that the end had finally come, and so early in this season of Youth and Vigah.
With Cliff Harris in mind, Lenny Bruce had cracked: “If JFK goes, make room for two graves at Arlington.“ Yet nobody expected it so soon. Not even Cliff, superstitious as he was and always expecting the worst.
But not this. Not now. Right in the middle of everything. Or actually, right at the beginning of everything. This was morning in America. America was a nation on the move, happy to leave behind the torpor of the Eisenhower years to heed this new presidents call for sacrifice and greatness...Even rational minds presumed that no mere bullet was strong enough to bring down the most powerful man on earth, certainly not this president, so youthful, so handsome, and so virile, for JFK was more than a mortal in terms of America. He was a star! As such he was impregnable and as for power wasnt he second only to God!
Kennedy still had promises to keep and Cliff Harris still had material to shpritz.
“Stay,“ he pleaded, utterly crushed, but persevering in the tradition of the show must go on.
The overflow matinee crowd, so cheerful and loyal a moment ago, turned on him and hooted him off the stage.
In an instant, in a snap, he was a has-been. That fast! Since taking on Kennedy as his career, Cliff Harris had known nothing but laughter and applause as his due. Loving eyes greeted him everywhere. He was adored as the presidents double. Now they were taunting him. From all corners of the room came jeers and catcalls even after he made his exit. Backstage his ears burned from the mockery of hundreds, soon to be millions.
The party was over, finished. Nothing would ever be the same again, not for Cliff Harris, not for anybody. A cosmic tragedy had just occurred in the land of merriment. Nothing was sacred. Nobody was safe.“
The triumph - and the charm of this coming-of-age tale is in its loving attention to detail, be it in the conflicts of the characters or the places they inhabit, from bedrooms to barrooms. An eye-popping cast of real-life characters mingle with Engelhards well-crafted and multi-dimensional fictional ones, and one cant help but envision this being played out on the big screen.
Whether you were lucky enough to have been any part of the scene that is so richly played out here, youll warm to the nostalgia of a time whose beat was set by bongo drums, and whose spirit and innocence has since been matched. Heartfelt and compulsively readable, “Bitter End“ is a sweet ride, indeed.