Monday, February 16, 2009

Submitting to Homosexual Advances

Last weekend, prompted by Jon Schwarz' enthusiastic recommendation, I read Charles McCarry's 1974 spy novel, The Tears of Autumn. There's always a risk in reading a book that someone has praised to the skies; one expects too much, and is let down, though the book might have been enjoyable if one had expected less.

And your Promiscuous Reader, indiscriminate book slut that he is, felt let down. Far from stunning, The Tears of Autumn was pedestrian in its writing -- worse, it often read like a parody of the aging tough guy who goes after the truth, no matter what obstacles are thrown in his way. The characters were woodenly two-dimensional even for this kind of genre fiction. While I'm not exactly a fan of John LeCarre, I was surprised by fans of McCarry who rate him LeCarre's superior. The Tears of Autumn was first published as a paperback original, and it reads like one.

Since I outgrew the James Bond books as a callow teen, I've never had much interest in reading about espionage. It annoys me when Our spies get all self-righteous about Their spies spying on Us. The nerve of them Commies! We spy on them only because we have to, and we subvert and kill to frustrate their wicked aims, but they spy on us because they're wicked, because they like doing bad things, especially to us, because we're the good guys. So I'll give McCarry one thing: his politics seem to be a bit above the norm for spy fiction. (I see that in 1972 he published an apparently critical biography of Ralph Nader.) While his protagonist Paul Christopher is devoutly anti-Communist, the story grows out of the Kennedy administration's support for the 1963 military coup against Ngo Dinh Diem, the dictator of South Vietnam, which led to his murder by the conspirators; the Pentagon Papers report of this US involvement is quoted as an epigraph to the book. Christopher is such a straight arrow that he disapproves of his government's conduct. Three weeks after Diem's assassination, John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and Christopher pursues the connection he discovers between the two killings.

I'm almost curious to see where McCarry took Christopher after this case. There are seven or eight more Paul Christopher books, published over the succeeding three decades and more. What happened to their politics as more evidence of dirty tricks by the US emerged in the late 1970s, and when the Soviet Union fell apart and the Cold War ended? But I don't know whether I want to read more of McCarry's prose to find out.

Also, though it was a minor element in the book, and amused me more than it offended me, the casual homophobia that turns up in the narration at a few key points is worth pointing out. Early on, for example, we're told of our spies that
Once a year, on the anniversary of their employment, they submitted to a lie detector test. The machine measured their breathing, the sweat on their palms, their blood pressure and pulse, and it knew whether they had stolen money from the government, submitted to homosexual advances, been doubled by the opposition, committed adultery. The test was called the “flutter.” They would ask of a new man, “Has he been fluttered?” If the answer was no, the man was told nothing, not even the true name of his case officer.
Notice the repetition of the word "submitted"; and maybe I'm just hearing echoes of "fluffer" in "flutter", but it does seem a rather campy euphemism. Of course this is historical background, a reflection of the official bigotry of the time when the book was published. It's a reminder of what decent, all-American CIA agents were expected to think in those days. McCarry himself, of course, is married and the father of four sons.

Later, we meet a minor character who helps Christopher with his quest, a Dominican brother expert in Chinese.
He was twelve, and already sexually corrupted, when the priests took him off the streets of Macao and taught him to read and write. Before he was twenty, the Dominicans discovered his talent for scholarship, and he never for the next forty years lived outside the Church, or wanted to.
Well, you can get all the 'sexual corruption' you want or need inside the Church, so why bother going out for it? I presume that the boy was "corrupted" by males because McCarry is much more worldly about heterosexual eccentricities. Another of Christopher's helpers is a German (or Austrian, or Swiss, whatever) midget named Dieter Dimpel.
He asked to use the toilet, and Dimpel showed him down a long hall, switching on the light for him. The walls of the corridor were crowded with framed photographs of unclothed blond girls, all wearing white knee socks; the pictures were expertly lighted and posed. Because there were so many photographs, the effect was chaste, an arabesque of white skin against whiter cloth, spun hair and closed eyes.
In McCarry's world, fetishistic heterosexual erotica is "chaste" in effect, but submitting to homosexual advances enjoys no such indulgence.

Torture (though we are assured at least once that Christopher doesn't torture people -- of course not! that is what underlings are for) is okay too. Christopher engages a Macedonian agent and his Flemish sidekick to kidnap and torture a minor Mafiosi in order to get the rest of the information Christopher needs. He'd prefer not to use water torture (not quite waterboarding, though mainly because there's no board), but accepts the necessity (which turns out rather to be the sadistic impulses of his agents) with a shrug, and only cautions them:
"There’s no need to hit the eyes."

Glavanis, seeing the contempt in Eycken’s face, grinned broadly. "Jan isn’t used to working with a man who has scruples."
The subject, one Frankie Pigeon, soon breaks. "When at last he was able to speak, he did so in a rapid soprano voice, like a castrato." That's the voice of our manly narrator again, as in all of these quotations.

Now, again, this is all par for the course, both historically and in a genre that has always been as heterosexual as the Western, but that doesn't make it less distasteful to read. I'm still thinking over whether to read the next book in McCarry's series.