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Raising Cain in Castro's Cuba. Buckley's latest spy thriller

Mongoose, R.I.P., by William F. Buckley Jr. New York: Random House. 322 pp. $17.95. BETWEEN 1961 and 1963, the cold war degenerated into a bitter feud between individual leaders. On one side were the Kennedy brothers, Jack and Bobby; on the other was Fidel Castro.

In his new novel, William F. Buckley Jr. revives the scenario that after his humiliation at the Bay of Pigs, President Kennedy developed a hatred for Premier Castro disproportionate even to the geostrategic threat a communist Cuba posed to the United States. (The Kennedys, whose father taught them ``Don't get mad, get even,'' were nothing if not intensely personal, not least in politics. It was the dark side of their charisma.)

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In this scenario, Kennedy's enmity toward the Cuban dictator impelled him toward that most personal - and hideous - of political acts: assassination. During his administration, the US fostered, supported, or participated in repeated attempts to murder Castro. In a horrifyingly ironical twist, the feud ended only when a sniper drew a bead on the President of the United States in Dallas.

Was Kennedy's death linked with the attempts on Castro's life? Buckley neatly fudges the question in this, the eighth in his series of novels about CIA agent Blackford Oakes. At the very least, Buckley would have us believe, Castro knew about Lee Harvey Oswald's plan and did nothing to stop it.

Actually, Buckley goes far beyond that. In this book Castro prepares - as a backup to the gunman - to drop a nuclear missile on the presidential motorcade. The weapon is an SS-4 that had been unobservable by American spy planes and left in place when the other Soviet missiles were pulled out during the 1962 crisis. (Like many of the incidents in the book, the possibility that a Soviet missile remained in Cuba is based on factual sources identified by the author.)

Will Castro be stopped - by Blackford Oakes? By the Cuban underground? By an impromptu alliance of a young Cuban soldier and a Russian physicist?

In what has become a familiar pattern for Blackford Oakes fans, ``Mongoose, R.I.P.'' (Mongoose was the code name of the operation to assassinate Castro) seamlessly weaves together historical and fictional events.

Buckley is an ingenious and devious plotter, and the story has enough twists and turns to satisfy most connoisseurs of the genre. The plot tributaries ultimately flow together into a suitably tense finale. History records, of course, that no nuclear missile descended on Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, but our knowledge of that doesn't diminish the excitement of the climax.

In short, as a thriller the book works. And yet, and yet.... Something seems missing. Perhaps it's related to the stasis that has settled over Blackford Oakes as a fictional character. Despite the passage of years and the wear and tear of his occupation, Blacky seems never to change, to evolve, to deepen. Even the often underestimated James Bond (the book one, not the movie caricature) was more sensible than Oakes to the moral irreconcilabilities of their murky covert world.

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Maybe that will change in what one hopes will be future books. At the end of ``Mongoose, R.I.P.'' Blackford, stunned by Kennedy's murder and the mirror it held up to his own mission, asks himself ``whether he had been, somehow, responsible ... in some way, indeed, an agent of that bullet?'' It could be the beginning of wisdom.

The book is also unsettling for its moral climate. The image (popular in some cynical circles) of the superpowers as two scorpions in a bottle, animated by nothing loftier than the Darwinian imperative, is repugnant in its blindness to the differences between democracy and totalitarianism. Yet the image seems almost apt for the Kennedy-Castro duel. To the extent that US policy was given over to the furtherance of Kennedy's vendetta, it was a demeaning period for the United States and its agents - including Blackford Oakes.

James Andrews is on the Monitor staff.

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