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Time On My Hands - A Novel With Photographs
Peter Delacorte
Washington Square Press, 397 pages

Time On My Hands - A Novel With Photographs
Peter Delacorte
Peter Delacorte started writing at 15. After college he started doing pop journalism, writing for magazines. His first novel, Games of Chance, appeared in 1980. He's stated elsewhere his greatest influence and those he loves to read include Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Thomas Pynchon and Elmore Leonard.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

"If only I had the chance to do it differently." Most likely you've had this yearning, probably more than once. In Time On My Hands, Peter Delacorte lets us see what might happen if we ever had a chance to go back and do it differently -- and the moral is that no matter how many second chances we might get, the likelihood is that we'd continue to screw things up.

Gabriel Prince writes for a snobbish high-style travel guide. In the course of researching new out-of-the-way attractions and restaurants in Paris, he has a (seemingly) chance encounter with quantum physicist Jaspar Hudnut, during which they discuss their mutual dislike for the politics and cultural zeitgeist of the United States presidency of Ronald Reagan during the 80s. Now it just so happens that Hudnut has a time machine in his possession (not of his own manufacture, but one he "found" abandoned by a time traveller from the future). The 72-year-old Hudnut himself is not able to use the machine -- he suffers a debilitating headache when he makes even short hops back in time. This may be due to his age, which, moreover, also makes him unsuited to the particular task he proposes for Gabriel: Go back to pre-World War Hollywood, hook-up with then aspiring B-actor (and then political liberal) Ronald Reagan, and somehow derail events to forestall his eventual more successful career as a darling of Republican right-wing politics and two-term resident of the White House.

Now, the first thing you're going to ask is, "Aren't there more catastrophic historical events that you might want to throw a monkey wrench into, like, say Hitler?" Delacorte doesn't ignore this issue, though I don't know if the explanation is entirely satisfactory. Similarly, he addresses all the problems of time travel -- e.g. can you go back in time and meet yourself?, what other events back in your own time (such as your own birth) might inadvertently be changed by your presence in the past?, if you've been back to the past, hasn't that already happened, and hasn't that already dictated how things have happened, so how can you change them? -- with talk of "parallel timelines" and "quantum bleeds" that offers the same superficial logic of a Star Trek episode.

No matter. All that stuff is beside the point, which is to tell an engaging "what if" story that is highly entertaining. Reagan serves as a figure we all know as a caricature of considerably less-than-deep thinking naïvete, and it's fun to see him depicted as the earnest nice-guy actor he probably once was. Actually, Reagan is incidental to the more central plotline of Gabriel falling in love with Hudnut's niece, Lorna, herself an aspiring actress whose initial early accidental death (in two different timelines) is averted at least twice by Gabriel's knowing intervention.

Of course, money is not a problem because Gabriel can finance himself quite nicely by knowing beforehand which horse is going to win (a time-honored time travel motif). But to meet and befriend Reagan, Gabriel becomes a script writer for Warner Brothers (at which he is very successful in part by cribbing ideas for movies that haven't been made yet). His lack of a verifiable past (because his past is the future), however, becomes a problem. Equally problematical is the question of how you tell the woman you love that you are not quite what you seem to be. Further complicating matters is that the original owner of the time machine has come back to find you and get his property back.

I don't want to give much more away than that, other than to note that the full meaning of the title, as well as what at first seems the somewhat irrelevant placing of period photographs throughout the novel, doesn't become apparent until the very last chapter.

Which, by the way, may not be the end of Gabriel Prince and his travels, as well as questions as to how his actions affect historical outcomes. The Washington Square Press paperback edition contains a Reading Group Guide that would otherwise be disposable (it sounds like the typical English teacher Q & A) except for a short interview with Delacorte in which he hints at a sequel.

Here's a storyline I'd like to see: while Gabriel has saved the U.S. from the Reagan years, a certain Arkansas governor with bad taste in extra-marital girlfriends still becomes President and still manages to get himself impeached. To save us all the national embarrassment of our current political comedy, Hudnut sends Gabriel back in time to befriend Hilary Rodham and warn her that new boyfriend Bill has a straying eye. When that doesn't work, he goes forward in time to date Monica Lewinsky and advise her on the need to regularly dry clean her dresses...

P.S.: If you're looking for alternate-history fantasy that features a truly monumentally dark and tragic Presidential figure, do yourself a favor and read Robert Coover's The Public Burning. Told in alternating chapters of third person narration and the first person voice of Richard Nixon, the novel invents a fantastical post-World War II America in which there literally is an Uncle Sam whose Sons of Light -- headed up by Dwight D. Eisenhower -- are embattled against the Phantom (Stalin) and his Legions of Darkness. In seeking to uncover Legion subversives in their own midst, Uncle Sam's Top Cop (J. Edgar Hoover) decides to make an example of suspected agents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The machinations of putting the Rosenbergs on trial -- particularly Nixon's politically ambitious and ideological part in this carefully orchestrated political theater -- culminate in the Rosenberg's public execution in Times Square. A fascinating and hilarious parable of the McCarthy years that is all the more disturbing for the considerable truth it conveys through the art of fiction.

Copyright © 1999 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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