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.
* 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.
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.