An older generation’s Cold War

Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

James Carroll’s first novel in nine years takes a thoughtful, balanced look at the father-son conflicts that erupted during the Cold War -- Oedipal and political issues that he handled more bluntly and controversially in his National Book Award-winning memoir, “An American Requiem”; a recent work of history, “Constantine’s Sword”; and a plea for reform, “Toward a New Catholic Church.”

The nonfiction books were acts of rebellion against Carroll’s father, an Air Force general, and against the Catholic hierarchy. In “An American Requiem,” Carroll, now a Boston Globe columnist, described how he fulfilled his family’s wishes by becoming a priest after his brother was disabled by polio. During the Vietnam War, however, his protest activities clashed with his vow of obedience, and he left the priesthood. In “Constantine’s Sword,” Carroll claimed to trace anti-Semitism back from the Holocaust to the very beginnings of the church as a temporal power. In “Toward a New Catholic Church,” he argued for thoroughgoing liberalization.

In “Secret Father,” the older generation gets a chance to reply -- if not about Catholic doctrine, then about the grim circumstances of the Cold War. The novel is set in 1961, weeks before the Berlin Wall was erected, a year before the Cuban missile crisis. Three American teenagers at an occupation high school in Wiesbaden, West Germany, travel on a lark to Berlin to attend twin May Day celebrations: Socialist Mayor Willy Brandt’s workers’ festival in the West and a bristling Soviet military parade in the East.

They don’t appreciate the danger. The drain of refugees from East to West -- as many as 3,000 a day -- is about to make the Communists take drastic action. President Kennedy has urged Americans to build fallout shelters as “trigger-happy” U.S. military advisors press for “a preemptive strike against Moscow.” The situation in Berlin is a global flash point, and anything could set it off, including young Ulrich “Rick” Healy, who travels with a flight bag swiped from his stepfather, an American general, unaware of the top-secret microfilm it con- tains.


Ulrich’s fellow adventurers are Katharine “Kit” Carson, an aspiring writer rebelling against her father, an abusive, racist Air Force sergeant; and polio-stricken Michael Montgomery, whose father, Paul, is an American banker in Germany. The two Montgomerys narrate the story from a vantage point in the 1990s, after the Wall has fallen, so Paul is an old man recalling his middle age and Michael a middle-aged man recalling his youth. This makes them sound alike -- cautious, measured, a little ponderous -- even when Michael is talking about long hair, sex and political philosopher Herbert Marcuse.

In East Berlin, the teens are arrested. Secrecy descends, so that Paul, seeking information about the kids from Ulrich’s stepfather, Gen. David Healy, is turned away for reasons of “national security.” Paul becomes frantic. Outwardly successful, he is tormented by memories of his destroyer being torpedoed in the Pacific during World War II (when watching for torpedoes was his assigned duty). The strain of caring for Michael broke up his marriage, after which his wife died in a car crash. Loneliness and guilt have made him an overprotective father -- hence Michael’s bid for freedom.

Paul’s only ally is an unexpected one: Ulrich’s German mother, Charlotte, whose aristocratic bearing is belied by her work-roughened hands. Supposedly without her husband’s knowledge, she accompanies Paul to Berlin, where he uses his banking contacts to enter the lair of the Stasi, the East German secret police. In this focal point of Big Power paranoia, nobody can be trusted. Even Charlotte, with whom Paul falls in love, has far too many hidden agendas for comfort. The key to them seems to be the identity of her first husband, Ulrich’s father, and his connection to a murderous vendetta that has gone on since 1945.

This man is the “secret father” of the title, but all the fathers in this novel have secrets. Healy’s is that he cares more about his stepson, and less about national security, than anyone thinks. The Cold War may have been madness, Carroll tells us, but it was real, world-threatening madness, and the older generation sometimes managed it deftly. Kennedy denounced the Wall in public but covertly let it be built because it removed the likelihood of war over Berlin. The teen rebels’ idealism is genuine, but Marcuse and missile-watching aren’t appropriate outlets for it. They need to grow up enough to find such outlets -- and Carroll, in this persuasively detailed, psychologically intricate story, assures us that they do.