By Kevin Rabalais
Some books carry a charge, in memory, of the place we first encountered them. One glimpse at the spine of The Brothers Karamazov, and I’m inside the sticky compartment of a train headed to Belgrade with Ivan as he recites “The Grand Inquisitor.” Frédéric Moreau, for me, will always set out on his amorous adventures in Sentimental Education as I sit outside Budapest’s elegant Café Gerbeaud. And those searing first lines from Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup—my first taste of the Nobel Laureate, one of the great prose stylist’s of our time—rise above the dusty radio tuned, perpetually, to the local NPR station in The People Room at Maple Street Book Shop in New Orleans.
For years, I’ve turned to the American espionage novelist Charles McCarry as a guilty pleasure. My first experience with McCarry occurred on cold Australian nights. This might have made it all the easier to imagine shady dealings in Cold War-era Berlin, but McCarry’s authority always came through in every line. He worked for the CIA from 1957 to 1968. Five years after he left the CIA, he began publishing fiction about the world he knew, offering it up to readers in novels that include The Tears of Autumn, The Last Supper and Christopher’s Ghosts. McCarry has written, to date, ten novels about CIA agent Paul Christopher and his extended family of spies and politicians. Imagine The Godfather as an epic about espionage and politics rather than the mafia and you begin to get a sense of McCarry’s body of work.
In one, terrorists hijack a passenger-filled airplane and use it as a weapon. That novel, The Better Angels (1979), and its sequel, Shelley’s Heart (1995), also chronicle a stolen U.S. Presidential election. The revelation of its conspiracy leads to the president’s impeachment. Reading these novels after the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election and the attacks of September 11, 2001, I had no difficulty suspending my disbelief. But how might I have responded if I had encountered these books on their initial publications?
Several years ago, in the middle of a snow-covered Paris winter, I went to the American Library and checked out my first McCarry novel that didn’t feature Paul Christopher or any member of his family. When I first read Lucky Bastard (1998), I thought that McCarry had betrayed me. It was outlandish, too absurd to buy into, this novel about a charming young politician whose mother had a brief affair with John F. Kennedy when she was a nurse and Kennedy a wounded soldier. Like his mother, John Fitzgerald Adams, the character at the center of Lucky Bastard, hides the secret of his paternity. As a student at Columbia in the late 1960s, he flaunts his Kennedy-esque charm. Women adore him. So do his professors. One of them works for the Soviets. When this man tells his Russian handler about young Jack Adams, the Russian demands to meet this bright student. Thus begins a relationship in which the Soviets cultivate an agent, turning him into a politician as they set their sights on the White House.
Jack goes to law school and soon rises from one political office to another despite his philandering.
“Half a dozen women who claimed to have performed sexual services for Jack, willingly and otherwise, come forward with their stories,” McCarry writes. “Jack denied nothing. He merely repeated, in every case, what he had said in the first case: He honestly didn’t remember the lady.”
A potential U.S. president who has been compromised by the Soviets? A man who survives not one but “half a dozen” charges of infidelity and rape? What was McCarry thinking? Surely these absurdities proved that his best work was behind him. Perhaps I should stick, in the future, to those Paul Christopher novels.
Then things changed. Years later—in late 2016, to be precise—certain stories in the news started to sound like they had been pulled directly from a Charles McCarry novel. So I found myself returning to Lucky Bastard to see where I had gone wrong and what I had missed. What seemed implausible in Paris, several years ago, now seems not only possible but prophetic in the way the author described, in 1979, that 9/11-style attack.
As McCarry writes, “…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.”
Too often, we believe that a book has failed us when in truth we have failed the book. When we refuse to enter, fully, the writer’s world, it’s often proof that the time isn’t right; we’re not ready, not yet. One day, perhaps, or maybe we will never be the ideal reader for that book. In not living up to the expectations that McCarry set in Lucky Bastard, I proved myself to be (the horror) the worst of readers. We learn to read as children. Then we learn to read all over again, each time we begin a new novel. For each novel carries its own demands. Each one of them asks whether we’re prepared to meet those demands and expectations. And somewhere, perhaps in the corner of a university library, some reader is combing through those McCarry novels in search of tomorrow’s news.