Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Spymaster Charles McCarry Profiled in The Weekly Standard

David Skinner reflects on the career of Charles McCarry in the new issue of The Weekly Standard. Here's a brief excerpt: "Charles McCarry, the spy novelist, has a number of bestsellers to brag about, if not the numbers or recognition of John le Carré. Still, many discriminating readers think he is better than le Carré. He is also the author of three grisly though impressive political novels, all of which trade liberally in satire and suspense. Praised for their prescience (two of them seem almost prophetic of shocking real-world events) they, too, can seem to be second-place finishers, with little of the cachet reserved for a Christopher Buckley or the audience enjoyed by, say, David Baldacci. McCarry seems to have what's required for literary stardom: winning characters, beguiling plots, fine prose, illuminating research. And the problem cannot be a matter of credentials. A former CIA operative who has worked in many locales, McCarry also has experience in Washington, where he's circulated in high-level politics and the upper reaches of magazine journalism. Sony pictures has an option on Shelley's Heart, and a forgotten Sean Connery movie was made of Better Angels, but Hollywood hasn't made enough of his work. Old Boys, a 2004 novel which revived McCarry's career, seems like an obvious candidate for a Clint Eastwood or Jack Nicholson production. In it, a likable bunch of old men, all retired CIA, take off for one last border-crossing, gun-toting, law-breaking adventure to find their missing friend, Paul Christopher, the sad-hearted hero of McCarry's spy thrillers. It is McCarry's most fun book, and its commercial and critical success led to a frantic market for copies of his other novels, all of which had been out of print. But Overlook Press began reissuing them, and the Washington-set Shelley's Heart was re-released this year.

After buying a copy of Old Boys off the remainder table at Book Revue, a nice store in Huntington, Long Island, I started reading my way through McCarry's novels. Not regularly a reader of thrillers or spy novels, I was surprised at how they lit a fire in me. Sensing an essay in my future, I arranged to interview the author. "The Harbor," the McCarry home in the Berkshires, is like the Berlin apartment of his characters Lori and Hubbard Christopher: "They lived ashore as they lived on their boat, everything ship-shape, with nothing more than they needed." And his cooking was reminiscent of food preparation in his books: simple, light, Mediterranean. For our lunch he made the best crab cakes I've had outside of Oceanaire. McCarry is tall and bald, with a hairless face and owl-like eyes that betray little but a constant flicker of mental processing.

For those who crave vérité, McCarry's years in government, on the campaign trail, and his share of face-time with impressive politicos should lend his Washington fiction every bit as much authenticity as his CIA days lend his Paul Christopher novels. The Washington novels have also delivered important news. Better Angels introduced, long before 9/11, the suicide bomber who uses his own body as a delivery device and boards commercial planes, seeking to blow them up mid-air. Shelley's Heart, published three years before the impeachment of Bill Clinton, showed America's two major parties dueling in Congress for control of the White House, as a recently appointed Supreme Court justice (who bears a strong resemblance to Ralph Nader) looks to manipulate the chaotic hearings to effect a transition from the traditional separation of powers to a rule of one--himself.

At their best, McCarry's Washington novels are about as entertaining as any by Christopher Buckley, though more intellectual. He is superb at showing how social and institutional life in Washington work, and the account is not flattering. His touch for comedy, though at times excellent, is not light. The ideas that distinguish McCarry--some of which are truly probing, a few of which are crankish--also keep him from being to everyone's taste. He tells the story of a liberal reader who complained to him that when his books describe liberals, "they actually describe our enemies." In response, McCarry said, "Precisely." Readers who take to McCarry do so with a vengeance. Christopher Buckley himself and P. J. O'Rourke both insist this fellow scholar of Washington absurdity is more than a good scribbler, in fact an important one. And connoisseurs like Otto Penzler and fellow spy novelists like Richard Condon have called McCarry's spy novels the best by an American writer.

In the late 1970s McCarry heard about another great fan. While writing a travelogue on the southwestern United States for National Geographic Books, he paid a visit to Lady Bird Johnson in Texas who, as she showed off the wildflowers on the grounds of the LBJ Ranch, turned and asked, "Are you the Mr. McCarry who wrote Tears of Autumn?" McCarry allowed that he was.
The former first lady smiled and said, "Lyndon loved that book."

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