Charles McCarry may be the best novelist of his kind.
Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By DAVID SKINNER
Charles McCarry, the spy novelist, has a number of bestsellers to brag about, if not the numbers or recognition of John le Carré.
Still, many discriminating readers think he is better than le Carré. He is also the author of three grisly though impressive political novels, all of which trade liberally in satire and suspense. Praised for their prescience (two of them seem almost prophetic of shocking real-world events) they, too, can seem to be second-place finishers, with little of the cachet reserved for a Christopher Buckley or the audience enjoyed by, say, David Baldacci.
McCarry seems to have what's required for literary stardom: winning characters, beguiling plots, fine prose, illuminating research. And the problem cannot be a matter of credentials. A former CIA operative who has worked in many locales, McCarry also has experience in Washington, where he's circulated in high-level politics and the upper reaches of magazine journalism.
Sony pictures has an option on Shelley's Heart, and a forgotten Sean Connery movie was made of Better Angels, but Hollywood hasn't made enough of his work. Old Boys, a 2004 novel which revived McCarry's career, seems like an obvious candidate for a Clint Eastwood or Jack Nicholson production. In it, a likable bunch of old men, all retired CIA, take off for one last border-crossing, gun-toting, law-breaking adventure to find their missing friend, Paul Christopher, the sad-hearted hero of McCarry's spy thrillers.
It is McCarry's most fun book, and its commercial and critical success led to a frantic market for copies of his other novels, all of which had been out of print. But Overlook Press began reissuing them, and the Washington-set Shelley's Heart was re-released this year.
Old Boys is tighter than most of its predecessors. Tight is a subjective quality, of course, and nothing so annoys a writer as an editor saying his work "needs tightening." But there is no other word for how McCarry can sometimes give the reader just a little more action and information than can be easily assimilated: As the story lunges forward, the reader feels slightly, pleasantly behind.
Close to the time of printing, it turns out, McCarry went over his 185,000-word manuscript and cut out 57,000 words, with few cuts longer than 20 words in length. That is, he cut out as many words as would fill a novella, not by heaving long sections or extraneous subplots into the wastebasket but by snipping away word by word and line by line. This is like cutting down a small grove of trees by trimming away with garden shears.
McCarry has a talent for headlong conceits that intrigue the mind and focus the action of potentially long, involved stories. In Tears of Autumn, his second novel and a bestseller, the conceit was an alternative theory, utterly speculative though very compelling, of the Kennedy assassination. In Old Boys, it is another alternative theory, less persuasive but equally diverting, of the life of Christ.
He also excels at satisfying the reader's hankering for exotica. Old Boys takes off for Europe, Russia, and the Middle East where a group of Arab falconers are hunting the houbara bustard, an endangered bird whose amazing speed and low flight path inches above the desert floor have made it a tantalizing prey and put it on the verge of extinction. The next stop is in the mountains of Central Asia for a sporting match between Tajik horsemen and a group of Kyrgyz, called a buz kashi that McCarry explains is like polo but "a blood sport with the carcass of a goat as the ball."
A former National Geographic editor and writer, McCarry loves anthropological digressions that tend to reveal some basic human characteristic seemingly forgotten by the modern Western mind. Man is essentially tribal in McCarry's fiction, a truth as manifest in the jungles of Africa as in the hotel lobbies of Washington.
After buying a copy of Old Boys off the remainder table at Book Revue, a nice store in Huntington, Long Island, I started reading my way through McCarry's novels. Not regularly a reader of thrillers or spy novels, I was surprised at how they lit a fire in me. Sensing an essay in my future, I arranged to interview the author.
"The Harbor," the McCarry home in the Berkshires, is like the Berlin apartment of his characters Lori and Hubbard Christopher: "They lived ashore as they lived on their boat, everything ship-shape, with nothing more than they needed." And his cooking was reminiscent of food preparation in his books: simple, light, Mediterranean. For our lunch he made the best crab cakes I've had outside of Oceanaire.
McCarry is tall and bald, with a hairless face and owl-like eyes that betray little but a constant flicker of mental processing. His manner is formal and restrained, but his conversation, like his fiction, has a naughty edge. Explaining why his prose avoids metaphors and similes, the 79-year-old writer gives an example: "If you say, 'Her [genitalia] smelled like the Rose of Sharon,' in the first place it's not accurate, in the second it's a diversion."
A gifted student who "never met a teacher who didn't hate me," McCarry was accepted at Harvard but, lacking money for tuition, joined the Army. There he learned the trade of journalism. Returning home to Massachusetts, he earned money cutting wood, then took his earnings to Ohio to serve as best man at a friend's wedding. After the nuptials, McCarry ended up paying the preacher--and broke. Checking in at a nearby unemployment office, he found a job as a reporter for the Lisbon Evening Journal and the Youngstown Vindicator. In the village square of Lisbon, McCarry met a pretty librarian "with an even prettier smile," Nancy Neill. Today, they have four sons and have been married for 56 years.
In April 1956 a friend wrote to him about a speechwriting job at the Department of Labor. After taking a writing test, McCarry started working for Secretary James P. Mitchell, who deputized him as his representative to a committee for the National Stay in School campaign, a good-government public relations effort to address the social illness of rebellious, disaffected youth. Soon the young speechwriter was recruiting well-known athletes and actors to record radio spots, which he wrote himself and for which he popularized the term "dropout"--as in "Don't be a dropout. Stay in school."
On weekends, he began writing for men's magazines--True, Argosy, Cavalier--with an eye to saving enough money to move, with his wife and two small children, to Majorca, where he was going to hunker down to write the Great American Novel. After rejecting a job offer to write speeches for President Eisenhower, McCarry submitted his letter of resignation. Before he left town, however, Secretary Mitchell called and invited him to lunch in his office. When McCarry arrived, Mitchell was waiting for him with another man, a lofty government figure to the young speechwriter. After introductions, Mitchell left, suggesting McCarry and the other man have a chat.
It was short, pleasant, and partly in French, the first of several foreign languages McCarry learned to speak. The lofty figure asked McCarry to join the CIA. McCarry asked: What could I possibly do for the CIA? "That is not your problem," the lofty figure replied. "We must find out what it is you want to do and make it possible for you to do it."
"Which," McCarry observes, "is the most succinct definition of covert action I have ever heard in my life."
The CIA contact said the agency would pay for his family's air fare to Spain and gave him six months to write. "I didn't finish the Great American Novel, by the way; I never did. But we had a great time in Majorca." Then, as planned, the 28-year-old writer started working for the CIA.
The family moved to Geneva, where Charles ("Mac" to his friends) took a job working for the director of the International Labor Office of the United Nations while pursuing operations for the agency. A singleton, "I worked by myself," under deep cover, with great freedom. "I could think up projects, mention them, and get them approved."
McCarry offers little more about his covert work, citing his oath never to betray the agency. He does say his description of operations work in his novels is "authentic," but is less vague only when talking about CIA culture. McCarry always describes intelligence work as intelligent work, and the CIA, he found, was full of gifted minds, many with literary tendencies.
"Nothing was so highly valued" at the CIA, he says, "as the ability to write." The writerly mind shares certain functions with espionage work: "An operation," McCarry says, "is a plot."
One can go further and say the spy is a writer--and vice versa. McCarry's fictional master-spy Paul Christopher is a recovering poet and has an actual day job writing for American magazines--just like his creator. Christopher's fictional birthday is the same as McCarry's, and the name of Christopher's family home in the Berkshires is also "The Harbor." Discussing whether Christopher's specific adventures as a spy are realistic, McCarry assures me that they are, saying that his own life as a CIA operator was similar to Paul Christopher's.
In all of his novels, the air is thick with conspiracy. And the writer-spy is in a unique position to unveil the truth, as in the real truth about how the world really works. McCarry plays with the hunger for pat explanations, even comes close to delivering them; but at his best he refuses to give what the human mind, in its weakness, is begging for.
The classic conspiracy question--who benefits?--is the guiding question of McCarry's greatest novel, Tears of Autumn. The conspiracy that needs unraveling has led to the Kennedy assassination. The instrument, of course, was Lee Harvey Oswald. But who was using the instrument? Who had the motive? With an intuitive leap, Paul Christopher, after an almost-ecstatic vision, suddenly knows the answer: The Ngo family of Vietnam, taking revenge for American complicity in the assassinations of Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu. In this cold-blooded scenario, Kennedy is partly to blame for his own assassination.
The reader is never offered proof that this theory is correct. Asked if he believes it himself, McCarry acknowledges it is only a theory--but adds with a mischievous twinkle of the eyes, and in a voice somewhat halting from age, that it is an interesting theory.
The Miernik Dossier is even stingier with the resolution of its central question: Is Tadeusz Miernik a Soviet agent? Told through competing field dispatches, the story offers only exquisite frustration about the ultimate truth.
The Paul Christopher books (Tears, Miernik Dossier, Secret Lovers, Second Sight, The Last Supper, Christopher's Ghosts) portray espionage as truth-seeking. The Washington novels (Better Angels, Shelley's Heart, and Lucky Bastard)--and this will come as a shock to observers of congressional debate--sideline truth and give priority to the quest for power. Characters who are a little too good at everything (learning foreign languages, writing poetry, making love) give way to grotesques with a feral desire to dominate others.
The great gain in McCarry's shift to political fiction was a blossoming of his gift for comedy and caricature. Charlotte, the decadent British wife of television superstar Patrick Graham, tells some young party guests:
Stay! . . . We're going to have a wonderful discussion. Want to speak to you about the virtuous qualities of your president. Wonderful chap. New type of human, only took two and a half centuries of feverish cross-breeding to produce him. Homo americanus. [Screws] no one but his wife. Great example to the rest of us.
In 1967 McCarry resigned from the CIA, making his living strictly as a magazine writer until he began publishing books. His former life as a spy came to the surface in 1975 when he began promoting Tears of Autumn. His publisher had learned from another CIA man (drunk at the time) about McCarry's days in the agency, and was eager to use their author's striking résumé to publicize his spy novel. McCarry demurred, but when he appeared on The Today Show, the very first question was about his days in the clandestine service.
A lot, possibly too much, has been made by McCarry's fans about his days as an agent. And little attention has been paid to his time in politics. In 1960 he went on leave from the Department of Labor to write speeches for Henry Cabot Lodge, Richard Nixon's running mate--an experience that later helped fire his imagination about the possibility of stealing a presidential election and helped inform the plot of Better Angels.
In 1972, McCarry published an authorized, although not very flattering, biography of Ralph Nader, Citizen Nader. After being profiled by McCarry, Nader invited him to write the biography and allowed him significant access to his life and family. But the scourge of General Motors could not have been pleased when McCarry delivered his skeptical report on Nader, his "raiders," and their scare tactics. It also contained a tough chapter on Nader's half-hearted commitment to union reformer Jock Yablonski who, with Nader's encouragement but limited assistance, campaigned, unsuccessfully, for the presidency of the United Mine Workers against a corrupt leadership. After the election, Yablonski, his wife, and daughter were all murdered in their home.
During the Reagan era, McCarry worked on Donald Regan's score-settling memoir, For the Record, which became a bestseller after divulging that Nancy Reagan had been consulting an astrologer to help her husband. Alexander Haig was another of McCarry's collaborators. Haig's memoir Caveat and his later Inner Circles both featured the literary efforts of Paul Christopher's creator.
For those who crave vérité, McCarry's years in government, on the campaign trail, and his share of face-time with impressive politicos should lend his Washington fiction every bit as much authenticity as his CIA days lend his Paul Christopher novels.
The Washington novels have also delivered important news. Better Angels introduced, long before 9/11, the suicide bomber who uses his own body as a delivery device and boards commercial planes, seeking to blow them up mid-air. Shelley's Heart, published three years before the impeachment of Bill Clinton, showed America's two major parties dueling in Congress for control of the White House, as a recently appointed Supreme Court justice (who bears a strong resemblance to Ralph Nader) looks to manipulate the chaotic hearings to effect a transition from the traditional separation of powers to a rule of one--himself.
One might suspect the heart of a conservative to be beating inside McCarry's chest. In his books Kennedy represents much that is wrong in politics, and before Watergate McCarry chided journalists for their prejudices against Nixon. He's apt to praise Ronald Reagan ("for letting the CIA be the CIA") and his representative right-wing character, President Franklin Mallory, shares the two unifying traits of all his most estimable characters, intelligence and good taste.
But Mallory and the party of the right represent fascism. They love America but hate humanity. The president and the party of the left, meanwhile, represent foolishness and utopianism. They hate the Constitution and love only what America could be if remade in the image of their dreams. Both parties threaten freedom, the one by tending toward a police state and the other by being a patsy for revolutionaries (Communists in particular) and other would-be tyrants.
In Lucky Bastard, a stand-alone satire about the left's weakness for anti-American infiltration, McCarry makes a Clintonian antihero of an erotomaniac with a gift for politics. John Fitzgerald Adams grew up short of a mother and father but with the wall-eyed notion that his birth was the result of a wartime alliance between John F. Kennedy and his late mother, a former military nurse.
At their best, McCarry's Washington novels are about as entertaining as any by Christopher Buckley, though more intellectual. He is superb at showing how social and institutional life in Washington work, and the account is not flattering. His touch for comedy, though at times excellent, is not light. The ideas that distinguish McCarry--some of which are truly probing, a few of which are crankish--also keep him from being to everyone's taste. He tells the story of a liberal reader who complained to him that when his books describe liberals, "they actually describe our enemies." In response, McCarry said, "Precisely."
Readers who take to McCarry do so with a vengeance. Christopher Buckley himself and P. J. O'Rourke both insist this fellow scholar of Washington absurdity is more than a good scribbler, in fact an important one. And connoisseurs like Otto Penzler and fellow spy novelists like Richard Condon have called McCarry's spy novels the best by an American writer.
In the late 1970s McCarry heard about another great fan. While writing a travelogue on the southwestern United States for National Geographic Books, he paid a visit to Lady Bird Johnson in Texas who, as she showed off the wildflowers on the grounds of the LBJ Ranch, turned and asked, "Are you the Mr. McCarry who wrote Tears of Autumn?" McCarry allowed that he was.
The former first lady smiled and said, "Lyndon loved that book."
David Skinner is a writer and editor who has worked for THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Doublethink, and other magazines.