Whether reading Stephen L. Carter’s THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK and the novels that follow that genre to his historical novel, THE IMPEACHMENT OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN I have always felt very satisfied and contented when completing one of his books. After reading his latest effort at altering American history by recreating a fictional account of the Cuban Missile Crisis in BACK CHANNEL, I did not complete my reading with the same feeling. To his credit Mr. Carter has complete command of the events that led up to the 1962 crisis, the diplomatic machinations between the Soviet Union and the United States, as well as the domestic pressure that was exerted within each government. In a useful afterword, Carter explains the differences between his version of events and those that actually occurred allowing the reader to compare the two, and hopefully emerge with an accurate accounting for what took place. The book is not even counter-factual history, it is more a fantasy that if you were not cognizant of actual events then you might fall into the trap and be engrossed with the plot. It was difficult to accept the story line that Carter creates at the outset those American intelligence officials would employ a nineteen year old, black college student at Cornell University as a companion for chess champion Bobby Fischer at a competition in Varna, Bulgaria. It seems at a previous match the Soviet champion had told Fischer that in Varna he would provide further information about Soviet intentions in Cuba. From this point on the college student, Margo Jensen is involved in a whirlwind of espionage that will lead her to become the back channel conduit between Alexandr Fomin, a KGB Colonel, representing Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and President John F. Kennedy. For those familiar with actual events you will remember there was a back channel during the crisis as Mr. Fomin met with ABC News reporter John Scali. The substitution of Miss Jensen for Scali and the narrative that the author creates does not create a gripping tale for this reader.
Jensen meets a number of interesting characters in her journey ranging from State Department intelligence types, CIA agents, KGB Counter Intelligence officers, along with important historical figures like McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s National Security advisor and others. We witness Jensen’s growth from an untrained college student in the art of espionage to one who will amaze those who have to deal with her. The plot thickens as the missiles are discovered and the Soviet Union and the United States are brought to the brink of war. On the Soviet side we meet Viktor Borisovich Vaganian, a KGB Captain in Counter Intelligence who is trying to discover who on the Soviet side leaked the information identifying what Moscow hoped to accomplish in Cuba. His ally is a rogue American who is working for a domestic group that believes that Kennedy does not have the back bone to deal with the Russians.
As the book evolves the Cuban Missile Crisis is recounted with a number of historical details that are missing, rearranged, or created anew as it becomes clear that there is a war party in the United States who want to use the crisis as a vehicle to destroy the Soviet Union while the United States held the military advantage. In the Soviet Union, Khrushchev must deal with his own war party who favors striking during the crisis because they believe that if the opportunity is allowed to pass they will have lost any hope of defeating the United States whose technological future was much brighter than Moscow. Each war party tries to undo the back channel that involves Jensen, putting herself and those involved with her in repeated danger.
To Carter’s credit we are taken inside the Ex Comm national security meetings in Washington and the viewpoints of the participant run fairly close to what actually occurred. The rendering of Generals Maxwell Taylor and Curtis Le May seems to hit the spot as are the views of Robert Kennedy, McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara and others. Once the crisis is settled Carter presents two scenes that ring very true for the future. In a conversation between Bundy and Kennedy, the president now satisfied the crisis is over turns his attention to what should be done about Vietnam as the administration begins to gear up for the 1964 election. Secondly we witness a conversation between a CIA type, who Carter describes as a “traveling salesman of the clandestine world,” and Jensen, who is afraid what Kennedy’s domestic enemies might do in the future, the intelligence agent states that, “Still, if I were president, I suppose I’d watch my back.” A strong reference to future conspiracy theories involving those who felt Kennedy was soft on Cuba leading to his assassination in 1963.
There are other moments in the narrative that move away from the crisis and involve Jensen’s family, particularly her father who was killed during World War II. She learns that he was a hero and was blown up in order to avoid being captured by the Nazis as he ran agents during the war, and did not die, as she was previously led to believe in a motor vehicle accident. The issue of course was that he was black, and the intelligence community did not employ such people during the war. Because of this slight, Carter presents Jensen as the daughter who carries on her father’s work and her tenaciousness and character stem from his DNA. We also meet other characters from Carter’s previous novels, i.e.; her grandmother, Claudia Jensen, Major Madison, Jack Ziegler, Vera Madison, and Agent Stilwell among others. They are all integrated seamlessly and fit into the story line nicely.
(Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy chatting in Vienna, June 4, 1961)
The story began in a Conflict Theory class at Cornell taught by a former/current spy named Lorenz Nieymeyer and his prize student Margo Jensen. Their relationship formed a secondary plot that is evident throughout the narrative as Margo is confronted with an adventure she never could have expected. In an area of the book’s strength, Carter allows their personal and intellectual relationship to evolve and he closes his story by having the two meet, this time Miss Jensen holds the moral and intellectual high ground, and because of her ordeal she held her former professor in much lower esteem. Had Carter written a novel centering more about their relationship with the Cuban Missile Crisis in the back ground it might have made for a stronger narrative and a more believable one?