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.











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.)


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.


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.


Since I’ve disconnected my television satellite and I’m not currently working on any side projects, I’m starting to have more time to read. I don’t know if the trend will last, but for now, I’m making two changes to the book report.

First, when there are more than the usual three or four books, I’m going to try to put them in categories, rather than simply reviewing by strict chronology according to the date I completed them.

Second, my policy with book covers up to now has been to post a copy of the edition I read, if I can find it. Seems like the more I read, the more of a chore and/or impossibility that becomes, so, starting now, I’m just going to use the cover of the edition I like best. Based on this month’s experiment, that will probably mean lurid for the pulp, stately for the classics, and functional for everything else.

So, sticking to the announced categories…


Well, a pastoral anyway…

The Prairie (James Fenimore Cooper, 1827)


And so, at long last, I fulfill a teenage promise to myself and finish the Leatherstocking Tales. This was the third written of the five, but the last chronologically for the character of Natty Bumppo. I’ve written at length elsewhere about the modern world’s odd and foolish neglect of Cooper, but I have to admit this was my least favorite of the series.

Cooper’s usual strengths, namely his unsurpassed descriptions of a wilderness Fitzgerald could evoke so swiftly and efficiently on the final page of The Great Gatsby in part because Cooper had done the heavy lifting for a century’s worth of readers in a pre-visual age, his action sequences, and his ability to wring real tragedy from melodramatic plots and a more than occasionally turgid literary style, are all present here, but severely muted.

Moving the setting from the upstate New York he knew like the back of his hand to midwestern plains he knew chiefly from the witness of others robs his descriptive passages of their authority.

Dealing with a landscape and tribal cultures he knew less than well meant he had to basically transport his stock characters into unfamiliar and sometimes ill-fitting skins.

With Chingachgook killed off and Natty aged out of both his heroic skill set and his appeal as a leading man (who broke a heart in The Deerslayer and had his broken in turn in The Pathfinder), the romances fail to spark.

And with the conflict between the woods and the town (or the fort) replaced by a roving fight between rootless and unsavory settlers, more unsavory Sioux, and noble Pawnees (standing in for the noble Delawares of Natty’s younger years), the great theme of civilization encroaching on the wilderness and vice versa never comes to life until the very end.

Even so, the book is hardly without worth. There’s some good comic relief from a naturalist who is Natty’s equal for stubbornness and pluck, though not for intelligence. (If classic Hollywood had taken on the story, Donald Meek could have played him perfectly).  And there’s a genuinely horrific scene, after the not-for-the-faint-of-heart fashion Cooper had mastered if not invented, in which the rude settlers are forced to punish one of their own for killing one of their own.

Plus, Natty’s long day’s journey into night is handled with grace and aplomb, a fitting end for the character, even if the series carried on until the 1840s and found its pinnacle in The Deerslayer, set first and written last, by which time Cooper knew a lot more than the thing or two that had already made him America’s first major novelist, and an undismissible guide to our national psyche, by the time this was written.


Jake’s Thing (Kingsley Amis, 1978)


Yet another reminder that, if satirists have their uses, they also have their limits.

Based on his famous and, as the English say, spot-on preference for John MacDonald (“by any standards a better writer”) over Saul Bellow (“a human heart chap”), plus happy experiences with The Anti-Death League (a genuinely great spy novel from 1966) and Lucky Jim (his misanthropic career maker from 1954), I’ve cut Sir Kingsley a fair bit of slack over the years.

That slack has now stretched to cover The Green Man (1969), The Russian Girl (1992) and this. And unless somebody can convince me he had another Anti-Death League in him–or at least a novel which isn’t yet another variant on Lucky Jim–I’m done.

I’m done even though this had a smile on nearly every page, a laugh on more than a few and a potentially intriguing premise: “Is male menopause any sort of crisis for a misanthrope?”

Amis was a Conservative Hedonist. He practiced a style of world-weary, seen-it-all, Englishness that probably reached its peak with Lucky Jim and had evidently worn thin by the time the Sexual Revolution got up a real head of steam. Conservative Hedonism was certainly preferable to it’s Liberal counterpart. Real Hate is more bracing than Fake Love in both Art and Life. But it’s lost its sting now that the age of cultural collapse it foreshadowed has arrived in force.

Laughter’s precious, alright, but it’s not worth the supercilious slog that Amis began extracting from his readers as the price of the ticket. And, God help him, somewhere along the way he started trying to invest in character development, almost always a deadly notion for a satirist.

One can ponder “Jake Richardson,” or Kingsley Amis, and get a glimpse into why and how civilizations fail alright. It’s when enough people who might have done better, don’t.

Not saying there’s no value in being reminded.

But one reason I never got into Seinfeld or Larry David or any other recent version of the lineage Amis the Elder (his son, God help us, writes too) had picked up from H.L. Mencken (a truly corrosive misanthrope who was evidently a frustrated Hedonist, always the kind who both start this sort of thing and are bound to be the best at it), is that, at some point, very soon after you take its measure, the corrosiveness is just plain tiresome.

Life’s too short.

Oh yeah. The “thing” is impotence…or lack of desire to perform even in the face of undiminished capacity….or the male member.

One of those. Or maybe all of them.

All nice subjects for satire. This would have made a great short story, so if I do try Amis again it will probably be through that route.

I’m old enough myself to have commitment issues whenever I get ten pages into a novel and realize it’s already going in circles around a very familiar track.


NOTE: I usually avoid dystopian novels written by anyone but Philip K. Dick, for the same reason I usually avoid novels about psychotics written by anyone except Patricia Highsmith. If a standard exists, met over and over by the standard setter, why bother with the rest? That said, the classics of certain genres do beckon when I’m in the mood to further my education, hence, the following:

Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1931) and Brave New World Revisited (1958)



Huxley’s great insight was his recognition that the old truth about Religion and Art being incompatible with the New Age’s rising Gods (one of which is, amusingly, always called Science or, even funnier, Reason, the other of which, given that it covers everything from political boot-licking to industrial criticism, must never, ever be called anything as mundane as Journalism and therefor can never, amusingly or otherwise, be called anything at all) was reaching a new, feverish pitch, even when he knocked his original dystopia into a novel of sorts.

The world more or less survived the first go-round with Perfection. Fascism came and went. Soviet style communism was still going strong when Huxley “revisited” his own vision in the late fifties, but has come a cropper since.

We’ve found new ways to terrorize and undermine ourselves here lately.

Still, his vision was on-track in the macro sense. We’ve been fairly resistant to Big Brother, but we do love our machines and our drugs and we are using them to reshape ourselves into something already recognizable as the very subversions of “brave” and “new” that Huxley glimpsed in outline in the early thirties.

Like most dystopian novels (Dick excepted), Brave New World is a bit of a chore once the premise is established, but I’m glad I finally read it–sense of accomplishment and all–and I agree with those who insist it was a more likely vision of the future than Orwell’s.

Still, it’s less likely than the vision at the back of all the other western visions, laid down by John the Revelator after a mad dream incurred on the Isle of Patmos. Like I said. Only Philip K. Dick has got past him.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1986)


…And while I was in a dystopian mood, I thought I might as well tackle this one.

It’s a little more engaging than Orwell or Huxley. There’s an approximation of a human character at the center (she narrates) and a neat twist at the end. The vision itself isn’t very complicated or compelling. It’s made up out of bits and pieces of standard dystopian rubble and glued together by the even more standard Good Liberal horror of (and complete misunderstanding of) Evangelical Christianity. Anyone who has ever attended a Wednesday night business meeting at the local First Baptist, or understands even a little bit about how the chaotic anti-structure of Protestant sects actually works, will get a wry smile out of the notion that such folks will be running the New World Order, Star Chamber fashion, any day now. (The Handmaid’s Tale is set in what is supposed to be a disturbingly near future.)

On the positive side, the book is well written and there are a lot of sound general insights. Nothing that couldn’t have been gleaned from a good captivity narrative, mind you. (I know, because I just finished a captivity narrative myself and have been studying the sources.)

What really made this a grind, though, was that the specifics, despite being oh-so-carefully rendered, simply weren’t very convincing. It read like a philosophical treatise, not something the author felt in her bones.

So a lot like Brave New World–or 1984–after all.

The book was published in the eighties. If Atwood wanted to remain contemporary a generation hence she should have put jihadis in control of her world.

Of course, if she had, she would probably be dead or in hiding now.

I have no idea whether this was a failure of imagination on her part, or a failure of nerve.

And, despite her obvious skill, no desire to investigate further.

…the Usual Suspects

The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (John D. MacDonald, 1968)


Jesus. The first half of this is so touchy-feely I thought I’d picked up a Harlequin Romance by mistake. There are letters for God’s sake, and no sign of the usual gimlet eye, sizing up the late twentieth century, let alone any sort of adventure going on.

It picks up in the second half. But even then is seems more like a misguided attempt to imitate Ross MacDonald than anything I’d want or expect from the McGee.

Weakest of the series so far.

Dress Her In Indigo (John D. MacDonald, 1969)


I hate to say it, but the late sixties were not a good time for MacDonald/McGee. At least this time around he has the makings of a good story. even if it’s back to Mexico with not much to say that he hadn’t already said better.

There are too many twists and turns here and they don’t all make a lot of sense. When the bereaved father of a lost girl turns out to be not the out-of-shape midwestern businessman we’ve been led to believe but a stone cold torturer/murderer, the problem isn’t so much that it’s a stretch, or even that it’s a long stretch. It’s that the revelation comes as a total surprise to McGee, but not to the reader.

Believe me, I’m a pure sucker. You can have me agape with the least effort imaginable. But even I saw every twist coming, except for one very small, and genuinely unsettling one near the very end.

In short, too much sex therapy, as had become the norm (though at least this time around it’s the various fantasy women providing and McGee receiving). Too much intricate plotting (leave it to the other MacDonald, i.e. Ross, not to mention Agatha Christie, for they were good at it). Too much Meyer (I like Meyer, we all like Meyer, but McGee doesn’t need a true Watson). And yet again, no really memorable villain.

The McGee was clearly in a slump. The late sixties had thrown both him and his creator. I have fond memories of some of the books coming up so I’m looking forward to a rebound. This was a little better than the last one, but it’s also the first in the series that had me checking page numbers, which is the equivalent of checking your watch in a movie, wondering just how much longer until it’s over.

Eye of the Needle (Ken Follett, 1978)


Having finally caught up last month with The Day of the Jackal, which story I knew from the fine film version, I decided to give this one, which inspired an even better film, a try.

Turns out the movie was a solid improvement (whereas the film of Jackal just held its ground). In part, because more liberties were taken.

The book is fine, a definite page turner, but it isn’t quite as good as Jackal, which was even better than the movie it inspired.

I don’t know if Follett was attempting a spin on Forsyth or anyone else, but coincidentally or not, his central track, in a story with an otherwise rather similar structure, ran opposite.

In Jackal, the trick was to keep the lone man trying to outwit the powers of the police state (in that case a paid murderer, who must necessarily be an expert in the craft of espionage) from being revealed as a sociopath until the last possible instant.

In Eye of the Needle, the trick was to keep the lone man trying to outwit the powers of the police state (in this case, a German spy loose in the England of WWII, who must necessarily be an expert in the craft of unpaid murder) from being revealed as something other than a sociopath. This is where the movie was an improvement (even though most critics didn’t get it…do they ever?).

Here, the murderous spy is merely cold-blooded, a standard Nazi-oid type most of us have encountered so frequently in fiction and film we’re bound to find ourselves stifling an occasional yawn by now, now matter how skillfully he’s rendered.

The film changed a few key sequences to hint at a man who got into it for excitement and love of country but knows he has lost his soul along the way. Given that for a premise, his affair with a lonely woman makes strong dramatic and emotional sense. In the novel, it’s far more mechanical and efficient. Still compelling, mind you, but the compulsion is strictly intellectual.

The movie of Eye of the Needle leaves an echo. The novel, well done as it is, is over when it’s over.