In Stephen L. Carter's new novel, "Back Channel," the world is on the verge of nuclear war, an American president is consorting with a 19-year-old girl, and a series of clandestine conversations held in a Chinese restaurant represents our species' best hope of avoiding extinction.
This might sound like a fanciful work of speculative fiction, but "Back Channel" is a meticulously researched historical novel.
The year is 1962, the president is John F. Kennedy, and the secret negotiations are a possible means of preventing the Cuban missile crisis from escalating into a devastating exchange of nuclear warheads. Carter takes some liberties with the timing and details of political events during the tense autumn of that year, but the broad contours of roles played by key figures emerge from the historical record.
While at least one JFK biographer reports that the president did have an affair with a 19-year-old, Carter reimagines this situation in some intriguing ways that drive his novel's plot. He makes the 19-year-old a student at Cornell University named Margo Jensen, and he leaves vague whether or not her relationship with the president was ever sexual. The primary purpose of her meetings with the president is not to provide pleasure but to save the world: Margo is the back channel by which Kennedy negotiates with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. (There was in fact a back channel during the crisis, but the negotiator was a male journalist with ABC news.)
These modifications allow Carter to introduce some interesting themes. One of Margo's professors at Cornell is a pompous but brilliant political strategist; his lectures on the dynamics of game theory and conflict negotiation offer abstract summations of the very ideas that many of the action sequences dramatize. Margo goes from studying politics and world events to directly shaping them.
The series of events and coincidences that catapults her into such a pivotal role is somewhat far-fetched. After she receives cryptic government orders to travel to Bulgaria with chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, she is captured by Soviet intelligence agents. She escapes, only to be approached once again in America by various Soviet and American intelligence operatives with conflicting agendas.
Some want her to serve as a secret conduit between Kennedy and Khrushchev; others, however, are intent on disrupting any negotiations that might prevent nuclear conflict. Whether or not hawkish factions on both the American and Soviet sides deployed intelligence agents to prevent a peaceful resolution to the conflict, these factions certainly existed. Some Soviet warmongers wanted a conflict to occur before the American arsenal outstripped their own.
Faced with the imminent prospect of the Soviets placing nuclear missiles in Cuba, many powerful figures at the highest levels of the U.S. government demanded swift and immediate military action. Any perceived escalation would trigger a proportionate response that would in turn require retaliation; nuclear war was a very distinct possibility.
Carter is at his best dramatizing the intricate tactics and discussions of Kennedy and his advisers during this fraught period. Not only were each superpower's intentions obscure to the other, there was a real possibility that any official or clandestine information about those intentions was planted to gain strategic advantage. Any course of action depended on a number of assumptions that were difficult to verify and entailed dizzying chains of interlocking hypotheticals. The results were not academic; millions of lives were at risk.
Carter has a cynical wit nicely suited to evoking political realms. He describes a consultant as "that uniquely American species ... a man with connections everywhere and responsibilities nowhere." McGeorge Bundy, the president's national security adviser, muses: "A committee is like crabgrass, he told himself: it sits forever, swaying with every breeze, and is impossible to eliminate once it takes root."
At points, however, his emphasis on the potential imminence of an apocalypse feels heavy-handed. In a dramatic sentence given its own paragraph, Margo cautions herself against thinking too confidently about the future. Such thoughts only matter "(i)f there was a pretty soon." At another point, just in case we've forgotten, a Soviet intelligence operative declares, "It is the fate of the world we hold in our hands."
Margo's characterization is sometimes clumsy as well. Her motivation for almost every action is reduced to the simple desire to make her deceased father proud. Mentioned once, this might have seemed plausible, but its repeated use begins to feel like a crutch used to avoid creating a fuller character.
Near the novel's end, Margo reflects on the nature of history. "But of course great disasters are also great abstractions, easily buried beneath layers of the practical triviality we call everyday life." At its best moments, Carter's novel succeeds in giving tangible reality to the abstractions of a charged moment in American history.
Nick Romeo has written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and many other publications; his most recent book is "Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys."
By Stephen L. Carter, Knopf, 456 pages, $27.95