“The Chess Players,” by Francis J. Partel Jr. Self-published by Navy Log Books, March 2011, Vero Beach, Fla. 383 pp., $21.95. Available at Island bookstores and thechessplayers.com.
“The Chess Players” is the second novel by long time Chappy summer resident Frank Partel, drawing on his experiences as a naval officer in the North Atlantic and in southeast Asia.
As in his first book, “A Wound In the Mind,” (MV Times, May 29, 2009) a story of emergent understanding of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) in the Vietnam War era, in “The Chess Players,” Mr. Partel offers insights about human frailty in war.
Here he ruminates on the mental health of naval warriors entrusted with fascinating new weapons of mass nuclear destruction in 1967. Men who choose to literally bump into each other as they swagger around the seas in the highest stakes war game ever played. Eerily familiar. Philosopher George Santayana may be spinning in his grave.
This is the story of U.S. naval reserve ensign Robert Cannon, a smart-as-a-whip Columbia grad assigned to the USS Essex aircraft carrier to help track the movements of new and improved Soviet subs in the North Atlantic. Cannon is the new breed of naval officer, coming from the civilian world of realpolitik rather than the classic but isolated world of Annapolis.
Cannon serves as a symbol of the changing social and military mores in the late 1960s. He’s got a commanding officer who gives him space to figure out what’s really going on, the real chess game. The story is enlivened by the presence of a Soviet sub nuclear commander who is either drunk or having a breakdown as he prepares to ram a U.S. boat. Wish I could tell you these events were fictional. They’re not.
“The Chess Players” includes a subplot providing real new scholarship about Michelangelo de Merisi da Caravaggio, a real and still well-regarded 17th century painter who was also loony, responsible for killing at least two men. Whether intended or not, the Caravaggio subplot indicates that high-achievers aren’t always the best men for the job. Sanity counts.
As we know, the Cold War period in the novel was a period of nuclear brinksmanship, beginning with the Cuban missile crisis, the Six-Day War in the mid-east, and several instances of nuclear-armed Soviet ships ramming, or “shouldering” ships of other countries, particularly in the North Atlantic.
Cannon posits that Soviet bad behavior in the North Atlantic is a strategy to spread-too-thin U.S. forces and coffers. The end game is that Soviet subs will have freedom to roam and the Soviet backing of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan will end the U.S. stranglehold in the Mediterranean.
Cannon holds further that conflicts in Korea and Vietnam were similar diversions cooked up by the Russian Bear to improve their position in this board game turned real. If so, history shows the U.S. took the bait every time. Current events indicate we are still playing the game.
Mr. Partel knows history. Cannon is advised at one point by a former Columbia University professor that Rome fell because she was bankrupted by too many wars in too many places at the same time. When I read that, I began to get the relevance of this book.
The ’60s were a great time, particularly for rookie reporters. A byline in every demonstration. But as a reporter and a citizen I was so busy paying attention to what was happening that I didn’t ask why it was happening. My bad. “The Chess Players” helps answer the “why” question.
This is not a beach-read and it’s not for everyone. One reason is that Mr. Partel is still finding his sea legs as a writer. The book is uneven in places and is replete with intended naval-speak that can be tough to plow through but it’s worth it; there is a lot of gold in these pages. Publisher Navy Log Books describes its fictionalized history mission as “modern naval fiction for sophisticated readers.”
Mr. Partel is on to something. Book publishers today only want slam-dunk best-sellers. Unfortunately, that has meant that literary junk has pushed the literature of ideas out of the nest. An array of literary houses devoted to niche literature of ideas, his focus, has been born.
Here’s my fascination from a literary perspective. In only his second go, Mr. Partel has developed and pulled off a complex plot tapestry that involves the principal plot line above but also a love interest, which balances old white-shoe establishment mores with ’60s sensibilities. And the book is set on a world stage, ranging from Chappy to Malta. The CIA shows up in the plot line. It’s a bigger book than his first novel, literally and intellectually.
Mr. Partel’s characters offer encomiums for living life and the perspective of military history and gaffes from Odysseus to the present day in an easy-to-take presentation. In fact, Mr. Partel’s view of the world led me to call him up and ask about this next life phase writing career.
The author has undergrad and MBA degrees from Columbia University and had a successful banking career in New York. He taught for five years in the MBA program at New York University.
From his Vero Beach home last weekend, Mr. Partel described Cannon as somewhat autobiographical but “with 40 or 50 additional years of wisdom and life experience. As a young naval officer, I did not have the insights of the Cannon character. I didn’t see those things at the time though we had junior officers who had those attributes,” he chuckled.
He has studied the history of naval fiction including C.S. Forrester and Patrick O’Brian in the cannon and musket days. “One theme in this book, is, against the context of O’Brian and Forrester, with the kinds of weapon systems we now have, what kind of people do you breed?” [to operate them], Mr. Partel asked.
“Another theme is an exploration of relationships: Cannon and his mentor, father figure, and commanding officer as well as the love relationship with Laetitia Martin,” he said. Ms. Martin is also the Caravaggio researcher.
Bottom line: keep an eye on Mr. Partel, the writer. He’s created several strong and believable characters who will show up in novels three and four, now underway.