THIS IS, I believe, the sixth novel William Buckley has written featuring his hero Blackford Oakes. I have not read any of the preceding five and so come to this one with certain disadvantages. The first and most obvious one, which applies to any series of novels with a constant central figure, is that I lack the body of received information that regular readers have. I do not know Blackford Oakes in the same way as, say, I knew James Bond or Sherlock Holmes. I am ignorant of his whims and idiosyncracies, his strengths and weaknesses. And indeed Buckley makes little provision for new readers and the blurb is singularly unhelpful in this regard too. Consequently, my impression of our hero is hazy in the extreme. He appears to be tall, strong, Ivy-League educated, handsome, blond. And bland. The styrofoam features of any James Bond clone are all that spring to mind when one attempts to visualise him. Buckley fans will obviously welcome Blackford Oakes as a familiar friend, but the new reader longs for more information.
For me this proved a serious impediment, particularly as John F. Kennedy and Che Guevara play significant roles in the book. Now, I do know what they look like, and besides those very familiar figures Blackford Oakes simply dematerializes. The novel is set largely in Cuba, in 1962, just after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Cuba, in the person of Che Guevara, is seeking some sort of unofficial rapprochement with the United States. President Kennedy sends Oakes out to Havana to conduct the negotiations and establish the details of the quid pro quo. The United States will lift its economic blockade in return for Cuban assurances of nonintervention in other Latin American countries. It turns out to be a lengthy and tedious assignment. Oakes spends months in sporadic meetings with Che trying to draw up the terms of an agreement.
However, as it turns out, they are both somewhat unwitting pawns in the hands of Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro. The whole purpose of the Cuban-U.S. negotiations is to distract attention and instill a false sense of calm, for the Russians are shipping in strategic nuclear missiles and once they are armed and established U.S.-Cuban relationships will be on an entirely different plane. But Blackford -- you've guessed it -- discovers the missiles with the aid of Che's interpreter, a nubile, sloe-eyed, dusky beauty called Catalina, and urgent attempts are made to communicate this vital information to Washington. Here we enter the terrain of the conventional thriller and I will not spoil any potential reader's enjoyment of discovering how Blackford Oakes becomes the unsung hero of the Cuban missile crisis.
TO A DEGREE See You Later Alligator is a perfectly reasonable addition to the spy-thriller genre. Aficionados may find it a little wanting in the glamour/sex stakes. Buckley is charmingly reticent about Oakes' allure and potency. It is very much a case of "Later, as they lay together . . ." and "The next morning, Blackford . . . " Also, the action creaks rather. "A single bullet pierced Blackford through the left shoulder as he leaped into the cockpit to grab Velasco." But this is scarcely surprising, for despite the token nods to the ingredients of the conventional spy thriller it seems to me that Buckley is interested in something altogether different. This novel -- and perhaps the other five? -- belong to what might be termed the didactic revisionist thriller. What Buckley relishes, and what the thriller format permits and condones, is the ability to enter the heads and dramatize the lives of real historical personages. JFK and Che get the most exhaustive treatment, but so do a host of other historical figures, major and minor. And what emerges as a lively and provocative subtext is an oblique and challenging view of the Cuban missile crisis and an intriguing interpretation of Che Guevara as dupe and to some extent scapegoat.
One wonders if Buckley, looking at the way his great rival Gore Vidal is rewriting American history through his historical novels, has decided to do the same for the 20th century through the medium of the thriller? Anyway, whatever the motives, it is the historico-political subtext that makes See You Later Alligator an enjoyable read and not the time-worn and predictable thriller mechanics of saving the world from destruction.