What if Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of JFK was thwarted? What if a hardworking FBI agent discovered the 9/11 plot and arrested the terrorists before they boarded planes? What if an 80-year-old Martin Luther King swore Barak Obama into office as the 44th president? What if a California screenwriter and professor, Stu Krieger, followed four families through these what-ifs from 1963 to 2009? Well, that would be That One Cigarette.
Epic in concept, direct in execution, the result is a 361-un-put-down-able pageturner that covers multiple families over several generations from birth to death. That One Cigarette is a well-researched alternative history of America woven into the daily lives of normal folk. Car salesmen, house wives, doctors, quarterbacks, and historians traverse neighborhoods and cities deeply involved in their day-to-day activities while giving glimpses into what could have been if history could be revised with hope.
Krieger’s worldbuilding is engaging much like the first season of a television series. Characters are introduced. Seeds are planted. Suspense is constructed to push a compelling plot forward perhaps at the expense of inner reflection which can be done best in novel form. The prose is clear, concise, and paints visible scenes typical of genre fiction. The dialogue is realistic. Cuts between scenes are brave and accelerating, rivalling tight filmmaking. The shifts in location from Dallas to Bagdad to Rochester to L.A. are especially skillful, leaving the reader asking how are all these threads ever going to come together? The narrative tone is light and entertaining: “expecting a movie start, instead she got a popcorn vendor.”
Krieger’s goal is clearly literary fiction. Yet the choice to repeatedly focus on plot-points rather than language or reflection lands the novel short of its goal:
Pouring milk onto his breakfast of champions, Brian’s attention was drawn to the television. At the Today show news desk, the anchorwoman lowered her voice to deliver the next item with somber reverence.
“Last night in Irving, Texas, the man credited with saving the life of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in November of 1963 passed away after a lengthy battle with lung cancer. Edward Kenneth Callahan heroically prevented would-be assassin Lee Harvey Oswald from pulling the trigger on President Kennedy as his motorcade passed the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas where both Callahan and Oswald had been employed. Mister Callahan was seventy-one years old.”
While necessary, the narrative summations often feel like “what happened last week?” teasers, and like the new streaming platforms should come with the option to skip and go directly into the new episode.
That One Cigarette is an addictive and gripping story, but often feels like fieldnotes for a television series rather than a novel. Regardless of genre, this is a recommendable binge-watch that puts important questions into the limelight.