A Very Private Plot

Buckley launches his tenth Blackford Oakes novel with a clever satire on pompous and ambitious senators, in this case Hugh Blanton, presidential aspirant and sponsor of a bill to eliminate all covert government activity. It is 1995, and Senator Blanton has subpoenaed Oakes to testify regarding his role in the Cyclops affair of 1986, a case so secret that only President Reagan and Oakes himself know the story. Blanton is convinced that CIA activity had then brought the country near to nuclear war. Unfortunately, Oakes refuses to testify, pleading former pledges of secrecy in the national interest. This serves as the pretext for his reflection upon the critical days of 1985-1986, and his association with Nokolai Trimov.

Trimov is an elegant, bright and well-educated lieutenant, whose parents have been killed for very reasonably requesting a sixty-hour work week. He never speaks out against the government, is a model student, and is eventually commissioned an officer and sent to Afghanistan, where he arrives on the day of Mikhail Gorbachev’s accession to power. There the sordid edifice of Soviet mismanagement crystallizes in Trimov’s mind.

After reading Whittaker Chambers’ WITNESS, Trimov adopts the spiritual mission of the nineteenth century Narodniki, who resolved to “go against this or that individual monster” with bomb or revolver. His first target will be Gorbachev. Through a former Russian agent, Oakes is alerted to the plot and allowed to tell only President Reagan of its existence. The two of them must then decide who will die—the newly elected president of the Soviet Union, an autocrat showing faint glimpses of liberalism; or the brave Trimov and his companions, determined to strike a blow for freedom which might also lead to nuclear war.

Buckley skillfully plays the Trimov plot against the Blanton imposture, highlighting the complexity of international affairs and the danger of political presumption. Readers of Buckley’s novels will find the familiar alter-egos with which he populates his novels, attractive, intellectual figures who know what they believe and are willing to die for it. One wishes for a little more of Oakes, but then this is a reflective piece. Buckley’s tale is both entertaining and illuminating, and reminds the reader how close we remain to the Cold War.