Just finished a piece for Commentary on Shelley’s Heart, the seventh of Charles McCarry’s novels to be reissued by the Overlook Press. (It is due out next month.) Originally published in 1995, it is one of the best novels ever written about the American left. His next novel was Lucky Bastard (1998), the account of a charismatic and winning young American, a sociopath, liar, and rapist, who is groomed for the presidency by Soviet agents. And together these two novels place McCarry in the small group of Americans who have written with distinction about what Irving Howe called “politics as a milieu or mode of life.”
McCarry is customarily described as a spy novelist, although his novels more closely resemble The Secret Agent than The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. A field agent under deep cover for the CIA from 1958 through 1967—he never held a desk assignment—McCarry began his career as a novelist with The Miernek Dossier (1973), a variation on the epistolary novel (it includes dispatches, memoranda, intelligence reports, transcripts of phone taps, intercepted Soviet wire traffic, the documents that make up a CIA dossier on a foreign agent). He originally began to write about espionage, he told the Australian national paper The Age, to “summarize my experience in the field as an intelligence officer and write what would be more authentic than some of the things I had read about the business.” From the beginning, though, his intentions were more literary than journalistic. Although he never returned to the documentary mode, he signaled in his first novel that he was more interested in fiction than in espionage.
The Miernik Dossier was followed by five more novels about Paul Christopher, a lapsed poet who practices journalism as a cover for “tradecraft.” The Tears of Autumn (1975), his second novel and the best of the Christopher books, introduced his technique of the historical “what if,” retelling the known facts as if they were produced by scheming and covert operations. President Kennedy is assassinated in retaliation for the American-led overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem.
The Secret Lovers (1977) suggests the importance of literature in what McCarry called “the life-and-death struggle between East and West for the soul of our generation.” American agents smuggle the only copy of an anti-Communist novel out of the Soviet Union. Couriers die to get the novel to safety, and when it is broadcast into the Soviet Union on Radio Free Europe, its author is a doomed man.
The Better Angels (1979) established McCarry’s reputation as something of a prophet. The novel foretells suicide bombing and the destruction of passenger jets as tactics in Islamic terrorism. It also explains why McCarry prefers clandestine agents to ideological purists. The latter believe that “some men did good in the world and others did evil,“ and that they have “joined the right side.” The former, who do not believe in a cause but a country,
Second Sight (1991), a long complex novel that takes Paul Christopher from childhood in pre-Nazi Germany and to retirement in partisan Washington, was his most explicitly political—but only in isolated passages. He compared the Sixties counterculture to the Hitlerjugend, speculated that U.S. news media “exercised many of the functions belonging to the secret police in totalitarian countries,” and described a “politics of self-congratulation” whose partisans had merely to hear Richard Nixon speak to want to kill him.
McCarry had served as the chief speechwriter for vice presidential candidate Henry Cabot Lodge during the election of 1960. Although he says little about Lodge’s running mate—he came to admire Lodge himself greatly, describing him as one of the most down-to-earth men that he had ever met—McCarry understands the part that Nixon plays for the American left. At a Washington dinner party in Second Sight, a journalist finds himself, for the first time in his life, “in the same room with someone who was willing to defend Richard Nixon.” The defense is shocking, offends him deeply: “They have made Mr. Nixon stand for evil and they think that all it takes to be virtuous is to hate him.”
But McCarry was merely polishing his knife-sharp critique of the left. Shelley’s Heart takes it to its logical ends. The novel is not only his best, but also his most ambitious—a 600-page thriller about a leftist plot to take over the government. For many readers, the chief obstacle to admiration of the novel will be its genre. But no other kind of writing is so well suited to McCarry’s purposes. The political thriller, which depends upon a plot in the old sense of diabolical secretive intrigues leading to catastrophe, is the only literary form that gives readers the chance to suspect, or at least to entertain the notion, that a conspiracy to take down the government might be possible. True lovers of literature have more in common with conspiracy nuts than either is prepared to admit. Only in the labyrinthine twists of a conspiracy, not usually in real life and certainly not in “literary fiction,” can the insatiable reader’s hunger for plot be satisfied.
The problem is that anyone who suggests such a thing in connection with the American left is liable to be slapped with the accusation of engaging in the “paranoid style.” McCarry solves the problem by placing his novel’s premise in the mouth of a conservative politician, who is hated to the verge of derangement by his enemies. The American left, he warns, is “a vanguard elite with a secret agenda,” which “stopped being a popular movement a long time ago” and has “survived for half a century by lying to the people.” McCarry avoids loading more weight onto his donnée than it can bear by risking (and not caring overmuch) how it may be received. That it may be dismissed in some quarters as a paranoid rant does not mean that it is not true.
Few novels rival Shelley’s Heart as a group portrait of the American left—Mr Sammler’s Planet, perhaps The Bonfire of the Vanities. I try to explain why, with greater detail, in my Commentary piece.
The Overlook Press has yet to reprint The Bride of the Wilderness, a seventeenth-century “prequel” to the Christopher saga, which I didn’t much like, although John Gardner and Orson Scott Card praised it highly. Lucky Bastard will follow, capping Peter Mayer’s campaign since 2005 to bring all of McCarry’s novels back into print (along with publishing two new Paul Christopher novels, Old Boys and Christopher’s Ghosts). McCarry also coauthored three political memoirs, two with Alexander M. Haig and one with Donald T. Regan (which revealed to the world Nancy Reagan’s consultation with astrologers), but these are unlikely to be reprinted in Mayer’s uniform edition of his work.
Born in June 1930 in the western Massachusetts city of Pittsfield, where Melville did his best writing eighty years before, McCarry joined the U.S. Army upon reaching the age of eighteen instead of enrolling at Harvard, where he had been accepted. For three years he reported for Stars and Stripes, then continued as a reporter for four years in Ohio after his discharge. He met his wife Nancy there, marrying her in September 1953. Three years later he moved to Washington, D.C., to become the speechwriter for James P. Mitchell, a Democrat from New Jersey who served as secretary of labor under President Eisenhower. After a year on the job he was ready to move on. McCarry had begun writing short stories at night, and on the strength of half a dozen sales had decided to transplant himself to Europe. Not wanting to lose his talents, Mitchell contacted Allen Dulles, who recruited McCarry for the CIA. He was twenty-eight. Ten years later he retired to Washington and his first intent—writing novels.
Although Christopher Hitchens sneered in the pages of the New York Review of Books that his fiction is written out of “the self-pity of the American right,” McCarry is not himself a conservative. He describes himself, in fact, as a “bleeding heart.” The difference is, as he told the Los Angeles Times, “I’ve been on this planet for more than three quarters of a century, and all my life I've associated decency with my country.” He has more in common with Hitchens than either would be comfortable in acknowledging. After September 11th, Hitchens bitterly criticized those in the “mainstream left” who seek to “rationalize” Islamic terrorism by pointing to American evils. “No political coalition is possible with such people,” he has written, “and, I’m thankful to say, no political coalition with them is now necessary. It no longer matters what they think.” McCarry differs in having developed his critique of the left several years before September 11th, and in abandoning any hope for a political coalition with such people even earlier.
Charles McCarry may be the best political novelist that the United States has ever produced.