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Monday, November 4, 2013

Reading List: Surrounded by Enemies

Zabel, Bryce. Surrounded by Enemies. Minneapolis: Mill City Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1-62652-431-6.
What if John F. Kennedy had survived the assassination attempt in Dallas? That is the point of departure for this gripping alternative history novel by reporter, author, and screenwriter Bryce Zabel. Spared an assassin's bullet by a heroic Secret Service agent, a shaken Kennedy returns to Washington and convenes a small group of his most trusted inner circle led by his brother Robert, the attorney general, to investigate who might have launched such an attack and what steps could be taken both to prevent a second attempt and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Surveying the landscape, they conclude it might be easier to make a list of powerful forces who might not wish to kill the president. Kennedy's actions in office had given actors ranging from Cuba, anti-Castro groups in the U.S., the Mafia, FBI, CIA, senior military commanders, the Secret Service, Texas oil interests, and even Vice President Johnson potential motivations to launch or condone an attack. At the same time, while pursuing their own quiet inquiry, they must try to avert a Congressional investigation which might turn into a partisan circus, diverting attention from their strategy for Kennedy's 1964 re-election campaign.

But in the snake pit which is Washington, there is more than one way to assassinate a man, and Kennedy's almost grotesque womanising and drug use (both he and his wife were regular patients of Max Jacobson, “Dr. Feelgood”, whose “tissue regenerator” injections were laced with amphetamines) provided the ammunition his enemies needed to try to bring him down by assassinating his character in the court of public opinion.

A shadowy figure begins passing FBI files to two reporters of Top Story, a recently-launched news magazine struggling in the shadow of Time and Newsweek. After investigating the allegations and obtaining independent corroboration for some of them, Top Story runs a cover story on “The Secret Life of the President”, creating a firestorm of scrutiny of the president's private life by media who never before considered such matters worthy of investigation or reporting.

The political implications quickly assume the dimensions of a constitutional crisis, where the parties involved are forced to weigh appropriate sanctions for a president whose behaviour may have put the national security at risk versus taking actions which may give those who plotted to kill the president what they tried to achieve in Dallas with a bullet.

The plot deftly weaves historical events from the epoch with twists and turns which all follow logically from the point of departure, and the result is a very different history of the 1960s and 1970s which, to this reader who lived through those decades, seems entirely plausible. The author, who identifies himself in the introduction as “a lifelong Democrat”, brings no perceptible ideological or political agenda to the story—the characters are as complicated as the real people were, and behave in ways which are believable given the changed circumstances.

The story is told in a clever way: as a special issue of Top Story commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination attempt. Written in weekly news magazine style, this allows it to cite memoirs, recollections by those involved in years after the events described, and documents which became available much later. There are a few goofs regarding historical events in the sixties which shouldn't have been affected by the alternative timeline, but readers who notice them can just chuckle and get on with the story. The book is almost entirely free of copy-editing errors.

This is a superb exemplar of alternative history, and Harry Turtledove, the cosmic grand master of the genre, contributes a foreword to the novel.

Posted at November 4, 2013 22:04