The first thing you may think when reading the opening pages of Stephen L. Carter’s engrossing Back Channel is, “What in the devil is going on here?” It’s 1962 and we’re at the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy is in a townhouse with a 19-year-old African-American girl, but not for the reason you think. It seems that this young lady is the key to stopping the world from becoming a glowing, radioactive ember in the darkness of space. You can’t be blamed if your first reaction is bemusement.
But even before this assignation, the young lady, Margo Evans, is sent to Bulgaria to babysit a real historical figure—you would never in a million years guess who it is. (Don’t worry, it isn’t Comrade Khrushchev.) Now, on top of your bemusement, you have to wonder, “Were things during the Cold War that desperate?” Anyway, Margo’s fractious charge has been approached by some Russian muckety-muck who may or may not tell him just what’s in all those crates the Soviets are shipping to Cuba. Her task is to get him to tell her so she can tell her handlers, or something like that.
But when the charge refuses to show up for a meeting because of obsessions he finds more pressing, Margo goes in his place. The experience proves traumatic, but then, to paraphrase one character, “Things get funny.”
If that’s not enough to keep you hooked, Carter surrounds Margo with people who are decidedly not nice and situations that are beyond surreal. Watching Margo navigate among so many landsharks, including our charming horndog of a POTUS, is fascinating in its own right.
Then, there’s Margo herself. Brilliant, logical, ambitious, patriotic in her own way, somewhat chilly in demeanor, she may remind you of a young Condoleeza Rice. But it’s her vulnerability, ultimately, that fascinates. She’s a girl, she’s an orphan, she’s a virgin, she doesn’t quite know what she’s supposed to do or how she’s supposed to do it. That you’re here to read this review tells you one outcome of her ordeal. For the rest of it, you’ll have to read Carter’s smart and snappy page-turner.