Saturday, March 14, 2020

Book Review: "Rocket's Red Glare" by Cy Stein

A Jewish family in the urban American Northeast lives under the threat of a fascistic order when Charles Lindbergh is elected President of the United States in 1940 on the promise of keeping America out of the Second World War.  If that sounds like the storyline of Philip Roth's alternate history novel The Plot Against America, you'd be right.  But if you think that sounds like a storyline for a fast-paced action novel, you'd still be right.  Cy Stein has given the idea of a Lindbergh Presidency a new twist with Rocket's Red Glare, a pulsating story of a young Jewish physics student caught in a web of intrigue and danger.
In Rocket's Red Glare, Sid Peskin lives with his family in the Bronx, pursuing his studies in physics at City College while President Lindbergh consolidates his power and tries to silence his detractors.  In this alternate history, Great Britain is occupied by Nazi Germany and Winston Churchill and his Cabinet have been forced into exile in Canada with the Royal Family.  Donald Trump's father Fred, not Fiorello LaGuardia, is mayor of New York City, and he allows the German-American Bundist groups to terrorize Jews and blacks while conspiring with the White House to shut down the New York Times.  Hitler gives tacit support to Lindbergh's administration, using the young President as a pawn in his quest for world domination, and Fred Trump beseeches the Nazis to help him in his real estate endeavors.  
Sid's intelligence and his ability to figure out mathematical problems quickly capture the attention of a well-known scientist named Leo, as well as a Brooklyn mobster.  Both gentlemen appear to be in a secret anti-Lindbergh group, and they take an interest in Sid's mathematical abilities.  When a physics professor of Sid's at City College is murdered, Sid realizes that physicists are in danger - especially when many of them begin disappearing without a trace. Sid takes a romantic interest in Julia, the mobster's niece, and finds solace in his relationship with her, but his paranoia increases as his suspicions regarding Julia's uncle and Leo grow deep.  What do they want with him?  Are they really part of some anti-Lindbergh group - and if so, who is their leader?
The parallels between this suspenseful story and the present are obvious.  Lindbergh appears to be a stand-in for Donald Trump, and his relationship with Hitler suggests Trump's relationship with Vladimir Putin.  Other historical figures appear in this tale in surprising roles; John F. Kennedy is a young naval officer working for the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, and he may or may not be helping Hoover and Lindbergh quash opposition to the administration.  Lindbergh has made Kennedy's father Secretary of the Treasury in a pathetic attempt to make his Cabinet look bipartisan.  Former President Herbert Hoover is in Lindbergh's Cabinet as Secretary of Commerce until he resigns to protest Lindbergh's declaration of martial law. And some of the greatest scientists in the world - Einstein, Fermi, Oppenheimer - make appearances, as do Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who look to start a crusade for communism and overthrow the Nazi sympathizers in Washington.
Rocket's Red Glare isn't as sober-minded as Roth's novel.  It's an adventure story, pure and simple, as Stein seeks to entertain with a diverting tale of good guys battling the forces of evil.  But beneath that comic book, graphic novel veneer lies a disturbing look at racial and ethnic prejudice, as well as a frightening tie between the past and the present. Consider Rocket's Red Glare a warning of what may yet be as well as a tale of what could have been.

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