This, the fifth of William F. Buckley Jr.'s novels featuring irrepressible CIA agent Blackford Oakes, is an engaging and mind-stretching book, comprising equal parts of derring-do and political cerebration.
As in his two preceding novels, Mr. Buckley again interweaves fictional goings-on with actual cold war events. ''Who's on First'' dealt with the race by the superpowers to put a satellite into orbit, won by the Soviet Union with the launching of Sputnik in 1957; ''Marco Polo, If You Can'' involved the downing of an American U-2 intelligence plane in Russia in 1960; and in ''The Story of Henri Tod'' Buckley builds his tale around the sudden erection of the Berlin Wall in the summer of 1961, ending what had become a torrent of East German refugees to freedom in the West and a constant source of embarrassment to the Soviet bloc.
In linking his stories to historical incidents more than 20 years past, Buckley sacrifices some of the topical immediacy that writers like John le Carre and Len Deighton achieve by playing off of current world events. We can guess at his reasons. For those alarmed by the relentless growth of Soviet might during the postwar era, among whom Buckley has long raised a leading voice, the time of Blackford Oakes's escapades is an especially instructive period. During those years the United States lost - some would say squandered - a decided advantage over the Soviet Union in world power and influence. Buckley usefully reminds us that the dangerous standoff now confronting the free world represents a stunning reversal in historical momentum, and causes us to ask anew, did it have to be so?
But I don't mean to imply that the book is merely a geopolitical polemic disguised as fiction. Buckley once again has given us a rousing good yarn. He has been mindful of the novelist's obligation to serve up generous helpings of vivid description, recognizable and sympathetic characters, on-tune dialogue, and suspenseful intrigue, all spicily seasoned with Buckley's droll humor.
The plot centers on the CIA's efforts to learn whether the Soviet Union and East Germany intend to make good on threats to cut off the West's access to Berlin. Blackford Oakes is dispatched to West Berlin as liaison to an unofficial but effective espionage network of young anticommunist Germans led by the mysterious and charismatic Henri Tod. Fleeing the security police during a mission in East Berlin, Tod is concealed by a pair of young lovers in their secret rendezvous, Hitler's former private railroad car. One of the lovers has access to East German state secrets and agrees to pass to Tod information about the communists' plans for Berlin. Meanwhile, the KGB sets a trap for Tod, using as bait his beloved but long-missing sister. The plot threads steadily intertwine, and the action builds to a gripping and somber climax.
One of the most ingenious features of Buckley's novels has been his practice of concocting fictitious but wholly plausible conversations among such notables as President Eisenhower, Nikita Khrushchev, and Dean Acheson. This time, in a masterly variation on the theme, he gives us chapters consisting solely of the stream-of-consciousness ruminations of John Kennedy. With uncanny empathy and even affection, Buckley captures the young President's intelligence, stylish phrasing, self-deprecating wit, and seriousness of purpose. The chapters are a tour de force of historical imagination and, for my money, the best in the book.
It must be said that ''The Story of Henri Tod'' is the most pessimistic of Buckley's novels. While the Western world suffers setbacks in some of the earlier works, the reader was left with a sense that victory still would be, or at least could be, snatched from the jaws of defeat. In this story of strategic impotence and personal betrayal, Buckley appears less sanguine about the capacity and will of the West to protect its interests and hold out hope to freedom-seeking peoples.
Learning of the President's decision not to take military action in the event the East Germans start to build the wall, Oakes recalls to a friend the foreboding of Whittaker Chambers, a convert from communism, that he had ''left the winning side to join the losing side.'' The friend gently chides: ''Despair, Blackford, is a mortal sin.'' There, I will continue to believe, is the authentic oice of Bill Buckley.