The Magazine

No Country for Old Men

From the September 13, 2004 issue: Charles McCarry's gray-haired spies take a curtain call.

Sep 13, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 01 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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Old Boys

by Charles McCarry

Overlook, 476 pp., $25.95

I FIRST HEARD of Charles McCarry in El Salvador during the civil war. I was in a bar known to be frequented by covert types, having a drink with a fellow from the U.S. embassy whose title was something like "trade attaché"--although he almost certainly wasn't, El Salvador having little trade in anything but weapons at the time. We were talking about the things American journalists and intelligence officers talk about when they're stuck in third-world sinkholes: intestinal disorders, souvenir shopping, local girls. The conversation turned to the ridiculous exaggerations of spy thrillers set in such places. My embassy acquaintance said, "You should read Charles McCarry. His stuff is very realistic." There was a nervous pause. "Not that I'd know," he added.

Back home, I read everything I could find of McCarry's, though finding it wasn't always easy. McCarry is the best modern writer on the subject of intrigue--by the breadth of Alan Furst, by the fathom of Eric Ambler, by any measure. Read Dostoyevsky's The Possessed or Conrad's The Secret Agent for worthwhile comparisons, and when you do, you'll see why McCarry has never achieved the popularity of John LeCarré, the author to whom he is most often compared.

McCarry has LeCarré's interest in ethical complexities and the tart style of LeCarré's early work. But, unlike John LeCarré, Charles McCarry knows right from wrong. His theme is never that the other side is just like our side except on the other side. McCarry's plots turn on the search for truth. The author and his heroes aren't in doubt about what the truth is: Good is good, and bad is bad.

That's not to say McCarry's characters are so Tom Clancy-flat as to be goody-good or bad, bad, bad. Even Paul Christopher--McCarry's recurring hero, a WASP Galahad--is wrong in his marriages. Paul's cousin, and Parsifal, Horace Hubbard, does wrong things for a dim King Arthur of a president. But Paul and Horace and everyone else McCarry gives us to admire knows the difference. The sophisticated reading public of today will forgive anything but moral certainty.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, all nine of McCarry's novels were out of print, and McCarry himself claimed to be retired. Then, this spring, Overlook Press announced the reissue of McCarry's fiction--along with one more, freshly crafted work, Old Boys.

I sat down in April to write a quick review of Old Boys. Now it's September. My gluttony, not my sloth, caused the delay. Since the publication of The Miernik Dossier in 1973, McCarry has been writing a roman-fleuve, a recherche du temps perdu, where the past is recalled by treachery, deceit, and interrogation rather than a taste of madeleine. (Excuse me for using so much French in a discussion of an author who knows right from wrong.) Old Boys is the final episode in the tale of Paul Christopher, his family, associates, lovers, and friends.

Paul Christopher is now in his late seventies. The others, when they aren't dead, are old enough to be so. (The exception is Paul's exotic daughter, Zarah, with whom, it is to be hoped, this fleuve will continue to the sea.) Old Boys is the brandy and cigar that closes the feast I've been having all summer, out on the screened porch, gin and tonic balanced on a stack of McCarry novels, while the garden went to weeds, the children became strangers, and the lawn grew three feet high.

It took me a week just to decide whether to reread the books in the order they were written or in the order of events. There's merit in the first plan. McCarry starts with just a sensible dislike of Kennedys. Then he casts a jaundiced eye on both Carteroid flakes and overreaching free market Reaganites. Finally he determines, as thoughtful people do, to cast a jaundiced eye on Republicans only--while spitting on their opponents:

Like most political figures of his generation who embraced progressive convictions, [he] had never in his adult life been anything but a politician, . . . he had never taken a mistress, fought a duel, or stood up for an unpopular cause. Every idea he ever espoused . . . brought him praise and approval among the opinion makers.

In the end, for the sake of getting the many and scattered dramatis personae better sorted in my head, I chose to read according to the fictional timeline:

* The Miernik Dossier (1973)--Bad information about bad Communists in the Cold War, circa 1959.

* The Secret Lovers (1977)--More bad information, this time about good truths about bad Communists in the Cold War, with flashbacks to really bad Communists in 1930s Spain.

* The Tears of Autumn (1974)--The Kennedy assassination featuring bad Vietnamese and worse Kennedys.