Stephen L. Carter, the author of this fictionalized account of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, is both a law professor at Yale and a prolific writer. His nonfiction books offer serious reflections on politics, race, religion and law. His novels — this is his sixth — are often fast-moving, fanciful looks at the upper levels of American politics.
“Jericho’s Fall,” which I reviewed in 2009, concerned a former CIA director who, although dying and possibly insane, had a number of people trying to kill him. In 2012, “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln” imagined Lincoln surviving the assassination attempt only to face impeachment from a hostile Congress. One of his attorneys was a young African American woman, surely a courtroom rarity in those days.
His new novel, “Back Channel,” re-imagines those harrowing days in October 1962 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sought to install nuclear missiles in Cuba and President John F. Kennedy tried to stop him without sparking a nuclear World War III. This story, too, features a young black heroine: Margo Jensen, an attractive, intelligent, 19-year-old student at Cornell who becomes the conduit between Kennedy and Khrushchev as both men struggle, rather blindly, to achieve their goals without blowing up the world.
And how did this innocent young woman find herself at the center of that cosmic drama? Well, it’s complicated. At the outset, it involves a politically connected professor who is fond of her and a trip to a chess competition in Bulgaria, where she hangs out with that troubled young genius, Bobby Fischer. She also meets a senior Soviet intelligence official who is a dove, by Kremlin standards, and who decides that Margo could be his “back channel” in negotiating with the White House as the missile crisis heats up.
The Soviet agent, Aleksandr Fomin, fears that high-level hawks in both countries will push their leaders into nuclear war. We see a series of meetings between Kennedy and his senior advisers wherein the hawks, led by Gen. Curtis LeMay, angrily demand an invasion of Cuba or immediate bombing of the missile sites. They seem to be carrying the day over doves, such as Adlai Stevenson, who seek a diplomatic solution. Kennedy stalls, but time is running out. The question is whether a face-saving compromise can be achieved. Soon, Fomin, who’s in touch with Khrushchev, is passing possible solutions on to Margo, who relays them to Kennedy in secret meetings in a townhouse on Capitol Hill.
This leads to another complication. Kennedy is willing to discuss life-or-death issues with Margo, but soon he’s hitting on her. He plays Sinatra records, loosens his tie, has a drink and offers her one, asks her to dance, tells her to call him Jack, and insists that they can be really good friends. But Margo’s beloved grandmother taught her to beware men who would take liberties, so she resists valiantly. But what’s she to do when a nasty tabloid reporter threatens to expose the supposed affair?
As if the president’s amorous overtures weren’t trouble enough, hawks from both the United States and the Soviet Union find out about Margo’s peacemaking role, and soon she’s being chased, shot at, kidnapped and otherwise treated badly all over Washington. As the nuclear deadline nears, it looks as if the world may be blown to smithereens because this one college student can’t be found to tell Kennedy what to do next.
“Back Channel” features nicely observed characters — Kennedy’s curt but brilliant national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, is notably well sketched — as well as clever scenes of bureaucratic infighting. (One State Department official invariably refers to his CIA rivals as the “clowns across the river.”) After the missile crisis ends peacefully — is that a spoiler for the younger generation? — Carter neatly explains certain relationships, exposes unknown villains and relates Margo’s later life. He also floats the grim theory that Kennedy’s victory over the hawks in October 1962 might have led directly to their ultimate victory over him in November 1963.
How you feel about this novel will probably depend on whether you can accept the notion that only teenaged Margo can save humanity. I had problems with it, but “Back Channel” is otherwise so smart, well written and well informed about Washington that I surrendered. If it’s a bit of a fairy tale, so be it. Carter is a serious man who often wrestles with serious issues, and he must have fun writing his novels, even when they become pure, mile-a-minute entertainment. You can share in the fun if you’ll willingly suspend disbelief.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
By Stephen L. Carter
Knopf. 455 pp. $27.95