Hidden agendas

Richard Schickel is a film critic for Time and the author of many books, including "Elia Kazan: A Biography," "Matinee Idylls: Reflections on the Movies" and "Good Morning Mr. Zip Zip Zip: Movies, Memory and World War II."

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The Last Supper

A Novel

Charles McCarry

Overlook Press: 390 pp., 24.95

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The Faithful Spy

A Novel

Alex Berenson

Random House: 352 pp., $24.95

IF you were to read Charles McCarry's "The Last Supper" and then follow it immediately with Alex Berenson's "The Faithful Spy," you would, in a matter of a week or two, find yourself in possession of a short, entertaining, albeit highly fictionalized, history of the CIA from its OSS beginnings in World War II through the Cold War and Vietnam to its struggles with Al Qaeda today. You would also find yourself contemplating two very different approaches to the art -- if that's the word one wants -- of the spy novel.

McCarry is one of the highly appreciated veterans of the genre, a writer of thoughtful, well-constructed prose whose works have frequently been compared to those of Graham Greene and John le Carre, which is a burden he didn't ask for and doesn't necessarily deserve. "The Last Supper" is nothing less than a full-scale biography of Paul Christopher, lead spook of McCarry's previous novels, from his birth in Weimar Germany to a peaceful retirement as the Cold War draws to an end. Or perhaps one should make that "leading victim," since Paul loses his parents and the woman he loves to the mega-historical ordeals of the 20th century and spends an arduous, annealing decade in a Chinese prison for no justifiable reason. Since Paul is one of a band of subterranean brothers, relationships with other familiar characters from McCarry's espionage epic are deepened, shadowy dots are connected and an utterly unexpected betrayal, requiring several decades to work out, is revealed.

Nothing so complicated is attempted by Berenson. He's a young New York Times reporter making his debut with a good, ripped-from-the headlines gimmick -- an American spy named John Wells penetrates Al Qaeda's inner circle, is disowned by the CIA but nevertheless must single-handedly try to prevent a dirty-bomb attack on the United States. Berenson is pretty much an action specialist whose prose is headlong and whose little gestures toward psychological nuance never delay the narrative rush of his storytelling. Essentially, he's a no-frills, plenty-of-thrills kind of guy.

Another way of putting all this is that McCarry's books get reprinted as trade paperbacks and have, so far, not been made into any movies, while one imagines that we'll find "The Faithful Spy" in supermarkets next year, with a "Soon to be a major motion picture" line on the cover. Which is also to say that in this branch of literature, as in all others, a kind of class warfare has been taking place for many decades. Devotees of the more-aspiring practitioners of the form (beginning probably with Greene) hold that the best works deserve to be taken as seriously as those by any literary fictioneer -- while conceding that, to this day, most spy novels should not be read in any place more prepossessing than the tourist section of an Airbus.

As a spy novel addict, I have to say that I don't care much for this argument. I read these books because they are the closest thing in print to movies of the kind they don't make anymore -- suspenseful and atmospheric yarns in which seemingly ordinary people (they're not, of course) do extraordinary things under the impress of duty and unpredictable circumstances. What's particularly agreeable about these fictions is that their writers have not found the literary equivalent of the special-effects sequence. Their protagonists pretty much go about their business the old-fashioned way, with guns, knives and chokeholds. And they do so in a noir-ish atmosphere -- inclement weather and dark alleys with alarming noises in the shadows. They are missions improbable but not impossible.

Forced to choose between the McCarry school and the Berenson school, I'd have to opt for the former, for two reasons: He is able to link field operations to the larger geopolitical issues of our recent history with some persuasiveness, and he has a good sense of the class issues that have plagued the CIA from the beginning. The novel that established McCarry was "The Tears of Autumn" in 1975, which argued that the JFK assassination was a revenge plot, engineered by the supporters of Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother, secret police chief Ngo Dinh Nhu, in retaliation for their murders, in which the Kennedy administration was complicit. I'm not sure I buy that theory, but it is typical of the way the author operates and adds a certain weight to his work.

He's more convincing (and entertaining) when he's showing how class prejudices operate within the confines of CIA headquarters. American espionage operations began as a kind of Ivy League playpen, a place where well-born and well-connected young men could engage in sometimes deadly games with their Nazi and Soviet counterparts as a kind of extension into the real world of Yale's secret societies and Princeton's eating clubs.

In "The Last Supper," a character named Barnabas Wolkowicz constantly refers to Yale as "the fool factory," and with good reason. He's a Russian emigre who grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, did not attend the right college and looks like a Neanderthal but is a passionate and gifted amateur pianist. He's a hard, practical, almost proletarian figure whose gift for "tradecraft" more than compensates for his bumptious, indeed contemptuous, manner. Nevertheless, he's not quite what he seems to be, and the way McCarry works out his destiny over several decades, the effect Barnabas' story has on the other characters (especially the much put-upon Paul Christopher) and the questions he raises about loyalty (should it primarily be to self, to other individuals or to institutions?) are well worth contemplating.

Does this make him Le Carre's equal? No, I think it makes him his superior. For the English writer has taken his reviews too seriously. Since the end of the Cold War and the completion of his George Smiley trilogy, he has grown ponderous in his development of characters, ever more meandering in narrative pace and ever weightier in his considerations of social issues. He's been trying to transcend genre and fulfill his fans' belief that he's the real literary deal, but in the process, deftness has been sacrificed to dullness and he's become just another middlebrow middleweight. In this, he stands in contrast to the one contemporary writer of espionage tales who, like Greene, writes "entertainments" of high literacy. That's the melancholy Alan Furst, with his novels of loners thrust into the European underworld during World War II and living by their improvisational wits. His books are short, and his narratives are not particularly high-energy, but that's not why we read him. He has said that his favorite novelist is Anthony Powell, and we admire him for some of the same qualities we find in Powell's novels -- his silences, his refusals to over-explain situations. But there is a density of atmosphere in his writing that is all his own -- an ability to render the dankness, darkness and menace of occupied Europe that is without parallel in the genre.

A guy like Berenson is not in his league or, for that matter, McCarry's. He can't render the CIA as anything more than a faceless, clueless bureaucracy, and this dark side of the secret world pretty much exists in cellars and cheap motel rooms that we've visited a hundred times before. Berenson's editor has contributed a letter to readers of pre-publication review copies of "The Faithful Spy" in which he insists that this "is the first novel to truly confront the Bush administration's War on Terror" in a way he calls as "explosive as it is profound." This is a load of hooey. There is not a word in the book about the CIA's widely reported complicity in that disaster. This is not a mistake McCarry would have made; it would have been the subject of his book. Nor is it a mistake Furst would have made; he would have been too busy showing the effect of mega-history on the lives of ordinary, largely unheroic human beings.

Next to them, Berenson is just a charged-up kid, in love with his own dexterity, but lacking that weary worldliness that is the hallmark of spy novelists wanting to come in from the cold to warm themselves -- somewhere below the salt, of course -- at literature's high table. *

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