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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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For their fact-based factitiousness, McCarry detests the media: "In late twentieth-century Washington . . . a certain politicized segment of the news media exercised many of the functions belonging to the secret police in totalitarian countries." I wish it were my politicized segment of the news media. Think what fun we could have in the dungeon cellars of THE WEEKLY STANDARD with, say, Paul Krugman: "Krugman, Krugerrands--coincidence? We think not. Confess, Paul, that you've been burying South African gold coins in your backyard since 1972 or we'll expose you to our secondhand cigarette smoke."

Mccarry is the only spy novelist who agrees with John Keegan's pessimistic assessment of the worth of intelligence operations. In McCarry adventures it is wisdom, strength of character, and moral rectitude that win the day, not sneaking around. And win the day they do, at least after The Last Supper. McCarry is the only novelist of any kind who becomes more optimistic as he ages. In Shelley's Heart the Speaker of the House, a principled old blue dog Democrat, drinks himself to death to save the nation--the kind of wisdom, strength, and rectitude with which we middle-aged men can identify.

McCarry manages this optimism even in the face of a historical figure, who won the day without sagacity, spine, or the virtues of even a weasel in rut. Every inch (including the inches Monica Lewinsky knew) of this well-known, lip-biting, finger-pointing, raspy-voiced personage is portrayed in Lucky Bastard (1998), with the slightest fictionalization. It's the one McCarry novel that takes place outside the Paul Christopher cosmos and shares no characters or action with its mates.

I saved this, my favorite McCarry book, to cheer the melancholy end of August, its waning days forever soured by the scent of back-to-school. And, in political-science terms, it's quite a schooling McCarry gives: "The American people in their mystical wisdom had lifted up this sociopath, this liar, this rapist, this hollow man beloved by lunatics and traitors, and made him the most powerful human being in the world."

The characters in Lucky Bastard mostly fall into two loathsome categories. There are the true believers in liberalism: "They defended Hiss's innocence as if it were their own, which of course it was. . . . They are the unconscious underground, demanding no support, requiring no instruction, driven by blind faith." And there are the true believers in that thing which underlies liberalism, that rotten confection at the core of the progressive Tootsie-Pop: "The purpose of the environmental movement is not to save the f--ing environment. Its purpose is to demonstrate the crimes and failures of capitalism. Just like every other component of the cause."

But McCarry makes one of these true believers his narrator. The story is told by an aging spy, a genuine Marxist who is, for all that he's a lifelong enemy of America, a decent guy. It is one thing to be a person with bad beliefs. It's another thing to be the man McCarry calls "John (Jack) Fitzgerald Adams."

The premise is that Jack, who is elected president of the United States, has been, since his college days, a Soviet agent. And that Jack's feminist harridan wife is actually his KGB handler. I suppose you have a better explanation for the Clintons?

We go from small town trashy origins to electoral triumph by way of used-up friends, cut rate, and venal and venereal scandals. But McCarry does not end his book with the former chief executive hogging the bestseller list, waxing on the lecture circuit, and basking, Hiss-like, in the admiration of the unconscious underground. Nor is the ex-First Lady a carrion bird on her nest in the Senate waiting to pounce upon whatever worthy aspect of the Republic next becomes road kill. McCarry is too jolly for that.

Instead, the Marxist narrator/spy (now double-crossed by glasnost and Jack Adams) and the KGB handler/wife (now furious with her "asset") help an ex-prom-queen Republican to . . . How do I put this in a family magazine? Before the dreadful inauguration of Jack occurs, the plucky Republican gal lures the president-elect into kinky sex. Undetectable ricin poison winds up in a pre-presidential orifice. The villain's end is rendered appropriate to his means.

And Old Boys has a conclusion that's every bit as appropriate--if somewhat more mature, as befits its more mature characters. It would be inappropriate to give that conclusion away. But, if the reader of Old Boys will forgive me, I'll say that not everyone lives happily ever after. In the world of Charles McCarry, where there's a genuine difference between right and wrong, not everyone deserves to.

P.J. O'Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of, most recently, Peace Kills.