SPOOKS, REAL AND IMAGINED (Monthly Book Report, 8/16)

This month’s offerings are both from the world of pitch-black secret ops: a re-read of Kingsley Amis’s fantastic sixties-era spy novel, The Anti-Death League, and, Compromised, Terry Reed’s account (with John Cummings) of his days triangulating between the gun-running, money-laundering and dope-dealing elements of the eighties’-era CIA and the multi-generational power struggle for political control of the U.S. government that ensued, the effects of which linger on.

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Compromised: Clinton, Bush and the CIA (Terry Reed and John Cummings, 1995)

“There’s a lot goin’ on here besides patriotism.”

(C.I.A./D.E.A. operative, Barry Seal, shortly before his murder, which occurred right after a judge “misguidedly” ordered him kept in plain sight, where his enemies could find him.)

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Terry Reed was a mid-level CIA asset in the eighties who, through a combination of misguided self-will, cruel luck and the peculiar brand of stupidity that often strikes intelligent people in the name of patriotism, got his ass caught in a muddy sling during the “Iran-Contra” phase of American decline-and-fall. This is his story, told with co-author John Cummings (a veteran journalist who had cut his teeth covering the mob), so, of course, you have to discount some inevitably self-serving elements.

That said, a book like this isn’t really about what’s “true.” In the real spook world Reed and Cummings describe, in sometimes excruciating detail, truth is a commodity and “facts” are the most uncertain things of all. It depends on who’s telling the tale and all that. The real issue is whether any given story is credible. Not, did it happen just this way, but could it have happened pretty much this way.

On that level, I found Reed’s account credible to the point of mind-numbing obviousness.

It’s not an easy read. Neither Reed nor Cummings seems to have possessed any knack for story-telling and a good editor could have probably cut two hundred turgid pages out of this nearly seven-hundred-page affair. And, of course, this is hardly a book that will be worth the slog for anyone who carries even a single drop of water for any member of the Bush or Clinton families.

For the rest of us, this is chilling stuff

Compromised‘s very mundanity makes the book’s tales of the Security State’s kudzu-like growth and rapacity in the go-go eighties all the more throat-grabbing. Get deep enough inside something so very much like the most reasonable assumptions behind the otherwise inexplicable rise (and rise, and rise) of the Bush Empire in Texas, the Clinton Empire in neighboring Arkansas, and the Security State everywhere, and you don’t know whether to gag or just stop breathing. The condemnation is thorough-going. If this thing had any style I might have just slipped into a bathtub about half-way through and opened a vein.

To put it in shorthand: This is as close a look as we’ll ever likely have at the exact machinations used by the sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating, Bush and Clinton cabals, to turn Texas and Arkansas into full-fledged Banana Republics, on the way to doing the same for the good old U.S. of A.

The point man running the game in between what, at that point, were the Vice President’s office in Washington D.C. and the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas (then home ground for a secret base training Nicaraguan rebels), was a wide-eyed, gung-ho C.I.A. operative who Reed knew in his operational days as John Cathey. His real name, of course, turned out to be Oliver North, the modern era’s Edward Lansdale.

This was a fact Reed discovered about the same time everyone else did, long after he had gotten an up-close-and-personal look at how the Clintons and Bushes each thought they had used the C.I.A. to get dirt on the other, only to discover that the Security State, of which the C.I.A. was/is only the most visible tip, had used their own mendacity (which, in Clinton’s case, had included the incredibly stupid move of skimming from the C.I.A.s cash-laundering operation embedded in his state’s banking system) to get a vice grip on them in turn.

Wild-eyed notions to be sure.

But, knowing what we know now, nothing in this book–a virtual, organic sequel to both Alfred McCoy’s The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (better, as it happens, than McCoy’s own update, The Politics of Heroin), and The Quiet American, Graham Greene’s fictionalized account of Lansdale’s early career in Southeast Asia–seems the least bit outlandish. If it does no other service, it certainly debunks the old notion that “wild-eyed” conspiracy theories are just that because, in the land of the free, there’s NO WAY you could ever hush a thing like that up!

If you believe that, Compromised should be mandatory reading.

That being the case, the appropriate response to the shrill phrase “this country,” so prominent in any political season, and nauseatingly so in this one, is affirmed yet again by this tale of days supposedly gone by.

What country?

The Anti-Death League (Kingsley Amis, 1966)

He was handed the transcript of a wireless message announcing Jaggers’ arrival by helicopter at the exact moment when the machine could be heard taking off from the meadow. No further information was given.

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I know I swore off Sir Kingsley a while back on the basis of life being too short to spend any more time with his world-weary nihilism, even if he still made me laugh.

But I wanted to re-read this, after a quarter-century plus, to confirm or deny my suspicion of its atypicality.

Consider my suspicion confirmed. Perhaps the cover of genre was good for him.

In The Anti-Death League, Amis pulled off the impossible and applied his trademark acerbic wit to a genuinely riveting, even moving, spy novel. Spy novels rivet and move–when they do–by casting small men (they seem to always be men) as improbable movers and shakers in large events that sweep over them and leave them, and us, scarred by the experience. There probably haven’t been more than ten really good ones, all, so far as I know, by Brits or adopted Brits (like Joseph Conrad and Henry James, whose heart-stopping The Princess Casamassima qualifies directly, even if you don’t accept the proposition that all his best novels qualify indirectly).

I have no idea what prompted Amis the Elder to adopt, for the length of this one novel, the view that human beings might be a source of something other than misery and crapulence, but the evidence that he managed it is on every page. In addition to an engrossing spy-narrative (rare in itself), he manages a fine love story and a real philosophical treatise on the nature of God and the Universe, all so beautifully interwoven that you can forgive a bit of awkwardness in dove-tailing his several plots and even his inability to keep nature from taking its course on a thud of a last page where he can’t help killing a dog, of all things, to prove how meaningless it all is here, among the humans he had, for once, so fiercely and painstakingly evoked.

10 thoughts on “SPOOKS, REAL AND IMAGINED (Monthly Book Report, 8/16)

  1. NDJ

    How many “facts” in Reed’s book were verifiable in 1995? How many have been verified since? I never read the book, just looked through some of it then and thought it read like Reed was shooting for a spot on Alex Jones’ show …

    EDN

    PS: Good luck with the hurricane. Up here, it’s rained about 1/4 inch in the past 24 hours and we’re reaching into the back of the larder for the canned goods we bought for Y2K …

    • Are spook facts ever “verifiable?” Isn’t the point of a spook state to make sure facts never are? Who would do the verifying? Time magazine? The Washington Post? The Wall Street Journal? Please…His story sounded plausible to me (slog though it was…no style to it).

      My guess is liberals would find the Bush/North aspects plausible and/or forgivable, and the Clinton aspects less so, while conservatives would be vice versa. Finding all parties detestable, irrespective of how I voted, it all seemed perfectly plausible to me. Plausible, but not provable in the legal or political sense, assuming there is any difference.

      Thanks for the good wishes. It’s part of living in FL…have gone through this exactly once a decade for my entire life. Last in 2004, so one was about due..

      • NDJ

        Facts that ain’t verifiable ain’t facts, just hearsay, spook or otherwise. It sounds like Reed told a lot of stories which can never be proven true, so anyone can believe what he wants.

        Give this contemporary article a read: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1994/07/21/clandestination-arkansas/e2c39f46-602b-4f4c-91fd-1ce94c743d69/

        I have lived through decades of stories about the Bush Crime Family (no, there is NO evidence they had anything do with masterminding 9/11) and the Clintons as agents of evil (I am still waiting for just one of the 43 bodies in Arkansas to show up) and 90 percent weren’t worth the attention i had to pay to listen to them.

        Reed had a book to sell. He sold it. It may be true, it may be BS.

        What I want to know, has any of the UNverified “facts” of 1995 become actual, verifiable facts since?

        EDN

        PS: Watched COLLATERAL DAMAGE last week. Did you recommend that to me? Not a spy movie, but a thriller in a similar vein. (That coulda happened, too.)

        I stayed in a Tom Cruise mood and watched EDGE OF TOMORROW, which put me in an Emily Blunt mood, which caused me to watch THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB, where I first became aware of her. Hubba hubba …

        • Nope, not verifiable. But, for me, facts are facts whether they are verifiable or not. Sort of like the tree that fell in the forest really did make a sound even if there was no one there to hear it. But whether we choose to believe a fact, any fact, depends on how much credibility we give the fact’s source. Like I said in the piece, I found Reed’s account credible, so I choose to believe him (more or less), even if I have to acknowledge I’m never going to know for sure…and the issues you raise about Bush and Clinton aren’t issues that Reed raised. (Yes, there are a few dead bodies, but he attributes them to the CIA, not Clinton, who he mostly portrays as a buffoon who got in over his head when the CIA came calling). Most evil starts in banality. You don’ t have to believe wild conspiracy theories to think the Bushes and Clintons are bad people. Most people who seek power are, and all I’ve mostly done before now is listen to what they say and watch what they do…in public. That’s been plenty enough for me.

          PS: I assume you mean Collateral, the Michael Mann movie, not Collateral Damage the Shwarzenegger movie? In either case I haven’t written about them so the rec didn’t come from me. Have seen, and enjoyed, Collateral a few times. Like you, I find that I’ve enjoyed a lot of Cruise’s films (and very much enjoyed Edge of Tomorrow…which was my intro to Emily Blunt. I really must seek out more of her movies.)

          • We have very different definitions of “fact.”

            Yes, COLLATERAL. Cruise and Foxx.

            See the AUSTEN movie; it’s a good intro to her, but she’s good (and hubbahubba) in almost everything she does.

  2. “Compromised” reminds me of “Family of Secrets,” by Russ Baker. In for a penny, in for a pound, my next thought takes me down an old rabbit hole, The Bohemian Grove which I explored many years ago. Both Bushes and Bill Clinton were reported to have been attendees. What in the world do they have in common? Apparently more than I’d have thought.

    This election makes all kinds of craziness seem sane.

    • Yeah, it’s been building for a long while. The madness, the madness!…I always take these kind of books with a grain of salt, but I also recognize that such things do happen and, if this one’s true it explains a lot that I would otherwise find, shall we say, mysterious….

  3. Now, I hope that all is safe after the breeze in Florida. And, I just have to read both of these books!

    Nothing like a spookified, tell-all, conspiracy book and another spy thriller to mess up my already addled brain.

    I hope that you’re safe and dry. Them ‘Cannes is what got me outta New England and down to Tennessee.

    • Thank you sir. I got lucky. The main part of the storm missed me by about ten miles, so all is well!

      I highly recommend the Amis book. The other has the caveat that it’s so detailed it becomes a bit of a slog at times, but for a look at how things likely got to be the way they are it’s hard to beat.

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