The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 was the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. Many journalists and historians have written books about it, and filmmakers and television producers have had their go too.
Oddly enough, few novelists have taken it on. Now comes Yale law professor and fiction writer Stephen L. Carter with “Back Channel,’’ making the event the occasion for what stands as his best work of fiction yet.
The basic details are well known. Russian ships carrying missiles and warheads steam toward Cuba; surveillance airplanes follow the progress of the preparation for a potential Soviet first strike on US soil; President Kennedy orders a quarantine of the island nation; and the Russian bear growls back saying that any blockade will be taken as an act of war.
Carter’s contribution is an ingenious plot device to heighten a situation that most of us thought could not have been more tense and precarious.
While each side prepared to do battle, an unofficial “back channel” negotiation arose in an attempt to prevent war. As Carter imagines it, the characters in this secret but crucial parlay are mostly historical figures. The president, of course, plays a starring role, as does his brother Bobby (the attorney general) and other members of the Cabinet and National Security Council team (including a maniacally conciliatory McGeorge Bundy and Air Force General Curtis Lemay frothing at the mouth).
Meanwhile, Soviet agents conspire with some US quasi-
official outliers to undermine the talks for political reasons of their own.
Into this volatile mix Carter introduces a character of his own making, a brilliant, at first slightly awkward but attractive, 19-year-old black coed from Cornell, whom the Kennedy contingent chooses to be a go-between no one in Washington would suspect.
Margo Jensen is a protégé of a professor of conflict resolution, who commends her to the White House and CIA as someone both up to the task and a perfectly disguised candidate, given her youth and beauty. (And, of course there is also the president’s well-known penchant for both those things.)
After training in Bulgaria — a long slog of a setup but useful nonetheless — Margo assumes her role, moving to Washington ostensibly to work in a government agency. Soon she begins a series of covert encounters with a Russian spymaster and the president himself.
With the hourglass turned over and the sand running, Margo’s talents as a person fast on her feet and with a deep sense of her profoundly important role rise to the surface. Though, of course, she has doubts. Her series of secret encounters with the handsome and flirtatious president flusters her, but she manages to keep her balance. If the situation weren’t so dire the scenes in which Kennedy helps her muss up her makeup and the bedding in their Capitol Hill rendezvous spot might seem hilarious. Her meetings with the Soviet agent working on behalf of Khrushchev teach her a good lesson in the pragmatic practice of conflict resolution and the struggle to halt the slide toward war.
Carter performs quite a balancing act himself, with panache and great success, particularly with respect to creating his plot. The events of the missile crisis are fixed, but he works within the skein of days it comprises, with his imagined meetings between Margo and Kennedy juxtaposed against the well-documented gatherings of the president and his war council.
So we know the history. But Carter invents enough intrigue and mirrors within mirrors and doors leading to more doors to keep even the eyes of a well-informed reader glued to the page, featuring as it does, secret agents, spies and counteragents (some historical figures, some not) with truths and lies (and eventually bullets) flying past each other on the recognizable streets of D.C.
The race to avert Armageddon becomes so palpably tense, as Carter leads the admirable and resourceful Margo Jensen through the countdown of the final hours (and the final 100 pages), that many readers may come to believe that his invention is the historical truth.Alan Cheuse, the book commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” can be reached at email@example.com.