Review: Surrounded by Enemies

Kennedy#By Bryce Zabel

Mill City Press, out now

There are plenty of other ways to assassinate someone, particularly if a gun has failed – as it did in Dallas, Texas, on November 22nd, 1963…

I’m a great fan of alternate history stories, particularly when they are done well. Taking a pivotal point in world or local history and extrapolating the possibilities always has the potential to provide interesting insights into the real world, and Bryce Zabel’s fascinating account of what might have been following JFK’s survival in Dallas certainly does that.

Zabel unashamedly follows the school of thought that believes that Lee Harvey Oswald was part of a conspiracy (and there’s a line towards the end of the book that sums up the difficulty of swallowing every piece of conspiracy theory that’s been ascribed to this situation which had been laughing aloud). His description of events in Dallas are drawn from many different sources but he takes it as read that there were shooters behind the grassy knoll and that there were forces determined to take Kennedy out.

Rather than write a novel about the Kennedys, Zabel has framed his story as a retrospective by the magazine that, in this new world, broke the story about JFK’s philandering and medical problems to the public, leading to his impeachment and much more. There are some clever tongue in cheek uses of quotes from the later Nixon and Clinton crises, although very occasionally it goes a bit too far – you have to imagine Zabel ascribes to the quantum theory that Time will return certain things to a set pattern, since his Jacqueline Kennedy, no longer widowed, still gains the nickname Jackie O.

Having written about events in Dallas for my own conspiracy theories book a few years ago, it was interesting to read the discussion that the Kennedy brothers have here about the likely suspects and the concentration on LBJ’s role. I’m not sure that I go along with their theorizing – there’s so much conflicting evidence about the assassination that even when we get more papers released in the next few years, I suspect the waters will simply be muddied further – but they/Zabel make a decent case. The relationship between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover is one of the strengths of this book (if not of the administration!) and there’s an inexorability about events once the kid gloves come off.

The only place where it starts to go off the rails is in the description of events in the 21st century that follow on; sure, I can believe that the dynasty would have another go at the top job, but the identity of the First Lady-presumptive takes this into too much of a fictional realm, after all the hard work that went into creating a credible 1960s-70s.

Verdict: A fascinating piece of alternate history. 8/10

Paul Simpson

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