Back Channel: A novel
Stephen L. Carter
464 pp., $27.95
Like his previous book (reviewed here), The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, a counterfactual tour de force, Stephen Carter's Back Channel centers on a crucial moment in American history. This new novel even manages to up the ante: what's at stake is the threat of nuclear war. But while this look behind the scenes of the Cuban Missile Crisis always keeps the all-too-real possibility of that impossible-to-grasp outcome in mind, it does much more as well: Back Channel has enough ideas, angles, and genial provocations to fuel a whole shelf of ordinary novels. It is, in fact, the best book to date by a writer who, not so long ago, was widely regarded as a public intellectual who had leveraged his clout to moonlight in fiction. (Not a REAL novelist, you understand—certainly not a serious practitioner of "literary fiction.") Me? I think of Carter as a novelist who teaches law and has interesting things to say about all kinds of subjects.
Back Channel is a spy novel, a Washington novel, a JFK novel; and the latest installment in Carter's fictional history of "the darker nation." (Readers who've followed Carter closely will also note a particular connection with his book Jericho's Fall.) And because Carter is a chess buff, we get some glimpses of Bobby Fischer (who appears here with all of his quirks and his loathsome obsessions). More centrally, this is a novel about another sort of chess, the province of the legendary Lorenz Niemeyer, a professor at Cornell who teaches a popular course on "Conflict Theory" and advises the White House on nuclear strategy. (For the fictional character Niemeyer, Carter has borrowed traits from some of Niemeyer's real-life counterparts.)
And Back Channel shares still more with The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln: a brilliant young black woman as protagonist. Margo Jenson, a 19-year-old student at Cornell (enrolled in Niemeyer's course on "Conflict Theory"), is not a clone of Abigail Canner, the 21-year-old protagonist of The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, but—in addition to being smart, attractive, and exceptionally resourceful—both of them are refreshingly plausible as women of their time, not citizens of the 21st century transported for novelistic purposes to earlier, more benighted eras.
How Margo becomes involved, so to speak, with President Kennedy as the "back channel" for secret negotiations with Khrushchev—negotiations intended to avert nuclear war while circumventing interference from hardliners on both sides of the Iron Curtain—is for you to discover as the story unfolds. Suffice it to say that Carter is clear-sighted in his depiction of the hubris, petty maneuvering, cruel detachment, and many other manifestations of original sin bedeviling our Republic, while managing to resist the temptation of self-flattering cynicism, on the one hand, or partisan finger-pointing, on the other.
Carter's uncompromising lucidity is tonic, but Back Channel is also simply a delight to read. (How odd that a book which soberly considers the threat of nuclear annihilation should also be so funny! But we are strange creatures, aren't we?) Do not miss the "Author's Note" and the "Historical Notes and Acknowledgments" at the end, where Carter says a bit about his sources and his calculated departures from the historical record. And one final note: If you savor well-made books, you'll enjoy holding a copy of Back Channel; it comes with a superb retro dust-jacket designed by Oliver Munday.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
Copyright © 2014 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.