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Surrounded by Enemies: A Breakpoint Novel Paperback – November 3, 2015
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"I have some experience with shattered timelines and altered realities but this one kept me guessing every page.”―Damon Lindelof, writer/producer of LOST, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
“Plausible development, building from what we know about what really did go on, and a whacking good story…SURROUNDED BY ENEMIES delivers on both, big-time. So hold on to your hats, folks. You’re in for quite a ride.”―Harry Turtledove, alternative history author, HOW FEW REMAIN
About the Author
Award-winning CNN correspondent-turned-screenwriter Bryce Zabel has created or developed five primetime network television series, including fan favorites Dark Skies, M.A.N.T.I.S., and The Crow: Stairway to Heaven. Bryce has worked on a dozen TV writing staffs, been a feature writer in both live-action and animation, and has collaborated with both Steven Spielberg and Stan Lee. Bryce won the Writers Guild of America (WGA) award for the miniseries, Pandemic, and the Sidewise Award for Alternate History for the original version of Surrounded by Enemies. He has received screenwriting credit on Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Blackbeard, NBC’s primetime The Poseidon Adventure, Lois and Clark, and L.A. Law. Bryce was the first writer since Rod Serling elected to serve as Chairman/CEO of the Television Academy, the organization that awards the Emmys. He has also been an adjunct professor at both the USC School of Cinematic Arts and the Marshall School of Business.
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Top Customer Reviews
Looking back at that optimistic time, it seemed so full of hope and of promise that people really do feel like some kind of idyll was cut short in Dallas on 22 November, 1963. Kennedy’s assassination was part of what changed that hopeful mood. But myth is one thing, and reality is another. Part of the reason Kennedy is so wistfully remembered is purely sentimental. This young, handsome, charismatic, seemingly vital leader was struck down in his prime. Popular perception would certainly be different had he survived his term and lived to old age. Most Americans had no idea that Kennedy’s image of youthful vigor was just a carefully maintained façade. His health was actually terrible; he’d come close enough to death to be given last rights twice before, and suffered from Addison’s disease, colitis, chronic back pain, and other ailments. He had to climb and descend stairs sideways, wore a sort of corset to brace his back, frequently had use a cane or crutches to move around, and couldn’t bend over to put his left sock on. He was dependent on a cocktail of painkillers and other medications to function, and, quite contrary to his public image, was probably a lot less vigorous, active, and healthy than the elderly Eisenhower he succeeded in office.
And behind that image of the ideal, attractive American family, we now know that poor Jackie was one of the most cheated-on wives in history. And this is part of the what if – what if all this had become generally known while JFK was in office? Kennedy enjoyed the benefit of living in an era when the press was far less adversarial, and tended to overlook things that were regarded as strictly matters of a person’s private life. But while the press was more apt to overlook such things in those days, it was a more puritanical era, and the public, had they known of Kennedy’s indiscretions, would have been far less forgiving; and Kennedy’s political enemies, had they been sufficiently determined to bring him down, certainly could have made use of those indiscretions. Also having the potential to tarnish the Kennedy administration’s image was a corruption scandal involving Lyndon Johnson, an investigation into which was underway at the time of JFK’s assassination, but which was quietly put to bed when LBJ succeeded him as president. Had Kennedy lived, that would not have happened, and Johnson may have been forced to resign in precisely the same manner that Nixon’s VP, Spiro Agnew later was. And then there’s the eternal question of whether or not Kennedy would have deescalated things in Vietnam. A plausible case can be made that he would have, but the matter is far from certain.
Bryce Zabel’s book takes a look at all this, and tries to lay out a plausible representation of what a second Kennedy term, and its aftermath, might have been like. Unfortunately, the book suffers from one fatal flaw: it is based on the premise that there really WAS a conspiracy that brought JFK down. Sorry, but there wasn’t. There’s no credible evidence for it. I mentioned Vincent Bugliosi’s exhaustive work earlier in this review, and I don’t propose to rehash that here. Let’s just say that Bugliosi really did his homework, and does a very thorough job debunking all the conspiracy theories, NONE of which withstand scrutiny when you really look into them. Yet today, something like three quarters of Americans believe there was a conspiracy, and that Oswald did not act alone. Bugliosi rightly pointed out that this is largely because American’s have, for the past half century, devoured one conspiracy book, article, treatise, or movie after another, while almost none have ever bothered to read the Warren Report, and have no idea whatever how truly exhaustive the inquiry into the assassination was. The later report of the House Select Committee on Assassinations almost completely vindicated the Warren Commission’s findings as well, and the assertion it made at the very end, that there probably was a conspiracy was based ENTIRELY on a Dictabelt recording, from a Dallas PD motorcycle radio’s open mike, that was believed to have recorded the sound of four gunshots, rather than the three Oswald is known to have fired. And that Dictabelt recording was later conclusively proved to have picked up the sound from a different motorcycle than was initially believed, one which was NOT part of the presidential motorcade, and the recording captured sound from over a minute AFTER the assassination took place. In other words, the HSCA’s statement about the probability of a conspiracy was totally discredited, as the sole piece of evidence it was based on was debunked, but the rest of the HSCA’s findings support the Warren Commission’s completely. But most American’s are totally ignorant of what the Warren Commission and the HSCA actually discovered, and almost all their “knowledge” comes not from these sources, but from what the conspiracy theorists say about them. This is like getting all your information about blacks from the KKK, or all your information about evolution from creationists – you’re not reading the facts; you’re reading some facts, mingled with half-truths, distortions, and even outright lies.
As I said, I don’t want to get any deeper into that issue; one could write an enormously long book on the subject. In fact, Bugliosi did just that, and I strongly urge people to go read it. But the moment where the deficiency of this book, the subject of this review, came into focus for me was not quite halfway through, when Edwin Guthman, the press spokesman for the Justice Department, comes to Robert Kennedy with a message from “concerned patriots” that the intelligence services have been watching JFK and what he’s been up to in his private life, and they are giving a “friendly warning” to JFK that he has a week to announce that he does not plan to run for reelection. Air Force General Curtis LeMay is strongly implied to be one of these “concerned patriots.” The implication is “we may have missed the president in Dallas, but we’re not about to give up, so step down or else.” Please. Why would the “concerned patriots” have ever bothered trying something as risky and as explosive as an assassination in the first place, if all they had to do to get rid of him was to kill his political career instead? It would have been a LOT easier, with no risk of landing the conspirators on death row for high treason and premeditated murder if their plans went awry. If they had decided nothing but an assassination would do, why would they use patsies like Oswald and Ruby, who were about as unstable and unreliable as anyone could be? Or having used Oswald, why wouldn’t they furnish him with a means of escape? Why not have a getaway car available for him to use to get clear, rather than leaving him to take a bus and a taxi, and thus be out in public, after his description had been put out? If Ruby killed Oswald to silence him before he could talk, why did the conspirators ever let Oswald get picked up in the first place? A car and driver to spirit him away immediately after the assassination would have completely prevented that, and Oswald could have been flown away to safety, or quietly liquidated, and evidence implicating him left for discovery, if the conspirators wanted him to take all the blame. This is the problem with the conspiracy theories: they postulate that the conspiracy was so successful, so well masterminded, that fifty plus years later, NO ONE has spilled the beans; yet these same Professor Moriarty-like criminal masterminds make the most stupid, childlike, elementary mistakes, such as using a looney tune like Oswald, then letting him get captured when they could have easily prevented it, then using another looney tune like Ruby to take him out in the most spectacularly public way possible. It’s nuts.
It’s too bad Zabel’s book is premised on the conspiracy nut version of the Kennedy assassination. It could have been so much better a book.
Zabel has no such illusions. He takes the struggles of the first years of Kennedy's presidency and projects them ahead, continuing JFK's ham-fisted foreign policy and battles with J. Edgar Hoover and the intelligence establishment. The bulk of the book is based on an idea that has been examined elsewhere: that, had Kennedy lived, the eventual exposure of his many extramarital affairs could have led to a presidency-threatening scandal. (Unlike Bill Clinton's exploits, JFK's affairs constituted a legitimate threat, given some of his paramours' connections to East Germany and the Mafia.)
While any alternate history offers just one possible path, Zabel's version, aside from a few outlandish asides, is plausible and interesting.
Bryce Zabel's book is not that kind of book. Zabel has done his homework, immersing himself in the minutae of the Kennedy Presidency and the result is a book that feels real -- something that not many alternate histories can say. The dynamics between JFK and RFK, between Jack and Jackie, and between his advisers Powers, and O'Donnell, are all believable.
Zabel's book posits that, having survived Dallas, Kennedy would have been destroyed by those who failed to kill him in Dallas. This is where it veers off into conspiracy theory, which might pose a problem for some viewers. The Mafia, Texas Oil, the CIA, and even Lyndon Johnson are part of the web of conspiracy that eventually undoes his Presidency. I bought this book, got it in the mail in the morning, and didn't put it down til I finished it at 11 that night. It's that good.
There are a few quibbles here, and they mainly concern what comes after Kennedy's exit from office. Chappaquiddick occurs, but it shouldn't -- Teddy met Mary Jo Kopechne as a staffer on Bobby's 1968 campaign, and they were driving home from a party that was a last get together for those who had worked on that campaign. Ronald Reagan is elected over Jerry Brown in 1976 -- but this is after NIxon serves two full terms (having burned the tapes). Would the public have elected another Republican to succeed Nixon? Only if Nixon's popularity ratings were high, which was unlikely. Al D'Amato is mentioned as a senator from New York in 1998, but D'Amato was elected in 1980 on Reagan's coattails. John McCain runs for President in 2000, but with the Vietnam War ending in 1966, he would not have been shot down in 1967, and would likely have stayed in the Navy and become an Admiral, like his father and grandfather. George HW Bush is President in 1988, but again, how? He wasn't Reagan's VP choice in 1976, so how does this happen? Zabel takes the post-JFK history, keeps the same names, but scrambles them up.