Charles McCarry may be the best novelist of his kind.
Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By DAVID SKINNER
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.