Sunday, September 23, 2012

Keith Raffel Hearkens Back to JFK and 1962

Keith Raffel's latest, A Fine and Dangerous Season, has one of the most unique premises that I've seen.  The story takes place in October of 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Nathan Michaels, who is a business executive at Hewlett Packard (yes, HP has been around for awhile), gets a call from Bobby Kennedy that JFK wants to see him right away.  How does JFK know Nathan, who is from Palo Alto and has always lived in the Palo Alto area?  Well, there's a little-known fact about JFK; namely, he went to Stanford in the fall quarter of 1940 and was enrolled in the business school.  Raffel uses that information to create a story centered on their brief relationship.  Pretty clever, eh?

While JFK was at Stanford, he was introduced to Nathan by Nathan's girlfriend, Miriam.  Nathan and JFK become pretty close - until JFK makes a bad judgment call, in Nathan's estimation, and their relationship ends.  Now, 22 years later, Bobby calls Nathan and says that his brother needs Nathan to fly to D.C. immediately.  Well, when the leader of the free world asks you to come see him, there's only 1 response that you can make - Nathan tells Bobby that he has no interest in seeing JFK, and the answer is no.  Obviously, Bobby convinces Nathan of the error of his thinking (otherwise there would be no story!), and Nathan ends up catching the next flight out to Washington.

What could Nathan possibly do to help JFK resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis, you ask?  It turns out that a Russian diplomat, Maxim Volkov, who the U.S. knows is a KGB honcho, has recently come to D.C. and is staying at the Russian consulate. Volkov was a close friend of Nathan's father up until 1942 and spent many evenings at the Michaels' house.  Now, 20 years later, even though Nathan's father is dead,  Volkov wants to meet with Nathan.  JFK sees this as an opportunity to find out what the USSR is planning on doing about Cuba and maybe even help reduce the tensions between the 2 countries through Nathan and Volkov.

Of course, things do not go particularly smoothly.  To begin with, Nathan is still feeling very resentful toward JFK.  That makes for some uncomfortable moments.  On top of that, there are people on both sides who do not want to see the 2 countries kiss and make up.  The U.S. military is itching for a fight and wants to use Cuba as the battleground.  At the same time, the USSR, with Kruschev, still has visions of world dominance.  With the Cold War in full swing, it does not look good for a peaceful resolution.

On top of all the diplomacy and behind-the-scenes meetings (Nathan sits in on high-level confabs - both with and without JFK), there is also a lot of action, with attempts on the lives of both Nathan and Volkov.  The book has a number of historical figures in it besides Bobby and JFK - Curtis LeMay and Robert McNamara, among others - and mixes Nathan in with all of them in an extremely effective way. This book is interesting and exciting - a good combination.  For me, I was 13 years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis (you can probably do the math, if you care one way or the other).  I really enjoyed learning more intimate details of what went on during those few days.  Having majored in history at UC Berkeley (that certainly led to a lot of job opportunities - just kidding), and loving historical fiction, this book appealed to me on a number of different levels - including the fact that it's very well-written.  Without that, the rest of it doesn't really matter.

This is Keith's 4th book.  The first 2, Dot Dead and Smasher, take place in Palo Alto,  The 3rd, Drop by Drop, comes from Washington D.C. and modern-day.  And now, A Fine and Dangerous Season is also in D.C., just 50 years earlier.  As I mentioned when I reviewed Drop by Drop a few months ago, Keith's writing gets better with each book.  This is definitely my favorite of his 4, for all of the aforementioned (I like that word) reasons.

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