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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* The Last Supper (1983)--Bad moral equivalence in the mid-1970s and very bad Nazis in the 1940s.

* Second Sight (1991)--Bad Arabs in the 1980s when we thought they were our friends.

* The Better Angels (1979)--Theft of the 2000 election, although, in this case, by the wrong side.

* Shelley's Heart (1995)--The wrong side gets its comeuppance, betrayed by a bad cabal of lefties.

* Old Boys (2004)--Tired, graying good people save the world.

At any point while pursuing the list above, you can insert The Bride of the Wilderness (1988), set in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It provides a full saga-dose of Christopher family origins. The Bride of the Wilderness is a historical romance, not a thriller, and it's McCarry's least thrilling book--too historical, too romantic. But it explores how a noble Paul Christopher sort of chap is begotten. Here McCarry puts flesh on the bones of not only right, wrong, but other dying ideas. He may be the last fiction writer who loves the Establishment--its institutions, traditions, patriotisms, and bloodlines. This isn't a snob love. It's an Edmund Burke, Lord Macaulay, and Michael Oakeshott passion. When we lose history we gain histrionics. "The wholesale death of human beings in Vietnam and the extinction of the blue pike in Lake Erie brought her to the same level of frenzy," McCarry says of a "Movement chick" in The Better Angels. And we know the result when the artificial theatrics are directed by Pol Pot instead of overwrought American coeds.

By the time McCarry wrote Shelley's Heart (which is his most thrilling book), he was examining how the Establishment was dying by its own hand. The novel concerns a too-plausible white-shoe secret society at Yale, devoted to the political notions of that fool Percy Bysshe Shelley. We hear the interior monologue of a prominent Shelleyan: "A frontal assault on the Establishment could never succeed. It must be conquered camp by camp--first academia...then the news media, the churches, and the arts...then a whole new apparatus of special interest groups." Considering that it doesn't exist, this cell of Whiffenpoofs has made a lot of progress.

The Shelleyans take as their text the lines from Prometheus Unbound: Man, one harmonious Soul of many a soul, / Whose nature is his own divine control. Again, we know the results of bundling human souls into a facis. And every day we witness the self-selected elite of jerks setting itself up as the supreme being of the universe. This slob god takes the serpent's place in the Garden of Eden and stuffs Adam and Eve with applesauce, calls Moses to the mountaintop and delivers ten thousand commandments about what's sensitive and affirming and what's divisive and hurtful, and pollutes every gospel with the devil's thoughts: "In the beginning there's a word from our sponsor."

And yet, in this one respect, McCarry is a disestablishmentarian. He has no good word for organized religion. None of his major protagonists is a believer in the normal sense. I'd suspect the author of personal atheism if it weren't for his thorough understanding of the Bible and his recurring minor character Martha, a patient, decent Quaker mindful of the "inward light." This modest woman pipes up now and then, always profoundly: "They have made Mr. Nixon stand for evil and they think that all it takes to be virtuous is to hate him. It is the sin of pride."

Also, in theological matters, McCarry has a sense of humor--among faith's greatest blessings. An idea first mentioned in The Miernik Dossier, revisited in other books, and animating the plot of Old Boys is that Jesus was an unwitting tool of the Roman intelligence service with Judas running the covert action that became Christianity. Not that Christ wasn't also the son of God. The joke is on the Romans for their inability to see what the Hell--or Heaven--they were looking at.

McCarry gives one of his favorite characters, a man who in the course of the books becomes head of U.S. intelligence, this opinion: "Reality was poison. Too many people, over too many years, had failed to see the truth to be able to recognize it now." Paul Christopher's second wife thinks "secrets were usually fraudulent and almost always uninteresting." Charles McCarry was himself a CIA agent, under deep cover, in the 1950s, and he knows there are facts that intelligence agencies gather, and then, somewhere else, there is the truth.