The less than charming premise of Mario Puzo's potential blockbuster, The Fourth K, is the threat of yet another Kennedy assassination. The time is the not-too-distant future, late in the first term of President Francis Xavier Kennedy younger cousin to JFK and RFK. Brilliant, handsome, and a dazzling orator, Kennedy sweeps to power by promising to wipe out crime, end poverty, enact national health insurance, shore up Social Security, and amend the Constitution so that public disputes can be settled by referendum.
But Kennedy's plans are thwarted by a Congress whose venality makes the Keating Five look like Girl Scouts. As Kennedy debates whether or not to run for a second term, a well-coordinated team of terrorists gives him the crisis he needs to save his presidency: They assassinate the Pope on Easter Sunday and hijack an airliner carrying the president's lovely daughter, Theresa. Meanwhile, a pair of muddled geniuses from MIT have hidden a small atom bomb somewhere in New York City, all the better to warn the world against the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Then on page two....okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration. But the author of The Godfather does get things under way with a bang.
At one level, The Fourth K represents American commercial fiction at its most formulaic. While Puzo's style is wittier and less bombastic than, say, Robert Ludlum's or Allen Drury's, it's still tempting to suspect that he's programmed his word processor to spell out phrases like ''the President of the United States of America'' at a single keystroke. Everybody and everything are described in superlatives. According to Puzo, this is the richest, deadliest, most brilliant, sexually insatiable cast of characters since Don Corleone was a pup. Even Kennedy's valet is an all-American football player with a genius IQ. In moments of stress, he and the president address each other in dialogue that sounds like they're lip-synching the Congressional Record.
At another level, however, The Fourth K is a darkly dystopian fable with a grim view of American politics. As Puzo portrays them, Congress and its billionaire patrons are a pack of jackals, the president a would-be dictator, the media a chorus of whores, and the tranquilized mob of voters about as hard to fool as a flock of chickens. Both sides in the ''constitutional crisis'' stage-manage public events on a scale that makes the Third Reich look like Disney Studios. It'll be interesting to see how this one plays. B