McCarry thriller demands dedicated readers

August 04, 1991|By Stephen Hunter

SECOND SIGHT.

Charles McCarry.

Dutton.

512 pages. $19.95. Not everyone likes Charles McCarry: His languid erudition, his easeful familiarity with the cities and cuisines of the known universe and his casual assumption that the reader himself has read a book or two tend to make him a refined taste as our popular literature turns more thumpingly obvious.

VTC Moreover, his narratives are more dense than a plum pudding and usually richer. They swirl, they swoop, they interlock, they weave, they dip, they meld. Although each of his seven novels is in some sense "free-standing," the books acquire meaning when read as a series. In toto, the books have turned out to be a kind of stately dance to the music of espionage.

Mr. McCarry, once an authentic spook himself, has taken as his subject "the Outfit," which is his nom de guerre for the Central Intelligence Agency. Anyone familiar with that institution will recognize thinly veiled versions of famous men. Cord Meyer, the grievously wounded Marine who returned from Okinawa to write an impassioned plea for peace through the one-world movement of the late '40s and somehow in quest of that goal ended up as head of the operations directorate -- the dirty tricks boys -- appears throughout Mr. McCarry's books as "David Patchen." In "Second Sight," the Old Gentleman, the founding father who orchestrates complexities with the aplomb of a master, is a clear version of Allen Dulles.

But, strictly speaking, Mr. McCarry isn't interested in History with a big H and his stories aren't pick-hits of Agency high spots. Rather, he concentrates on the psychology, the price, the

mind-set, of

spook culture, particularly as practiced in less multicultural days, when that responsibility was borne entirely by well-born Brahmins with Ivy League accents (and degrees), all of whom went to the same dancing school, married and divorced the same debutantes, who knew each others fathers and uncles (and in some cases were each other's fathers and uncles). He's the John Updike of the Cold War.

His new novel, "Second Sight," is in some sense a summing up, and while it's an engrossing, absorbing book, I hesitate to recommend it for those who haven't cut their teeth in earlier McCarrys. To follow it, it helps to know exactly the backgrounds of some characters, particularly the lead one.

The novel is billed as a "Paul Christopher Novel," and indeed, Christopher, a brilliant, humane, decent solitary agent with a tangled family history (he mourns the mother who died at the hands of the Gestapo; in this book we learn what price she paid and what her heroism earned) who has been the continual center of the McCarry work, is a presence. Yet he's curiously muted, having settled into melancholy after a 10-year stay in a Chinese prison in the last volume, "The Last Supper." In fact, it helps particularly to have read "The Last Supper," which is very much the setting up for this book and introduces other key characters, like the working-class hero traitor, Barney Wolkowicz. Also, it helps because "The Last Supper"

probably is the best novel an American has written about espionage since "The Secret Lovers," which McCarry also wrote and before that "The Tears of Autumn" . . . which, dammit, he also wrote.

In "Second Sight," the action proper revolves around David Patchen, who merely uses Christopher as a consultant. Patchen is by this time the head of "the Outfit," and he faces a terrible problem: Someone is kidnapping key agents the world over, and shooting them up with an unknown drug and then vacuuming them of information.

Patchen and Christopher set up a counter plan, and carefully assemble a team to make it work, with the connivance of the O.G. and other remnants and relics of the gaudy Christopher family history. If I say that I found the incidentals somewhat more appealing than the overall frame story I do not suggest that it is a major flaw in the book.

"Second Sight" is a bit more over-the-top than the more restrained and naturalistic books that came before. The flora and the fauna are quite exotic, including Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi intellectual machine-gunned by the Czechs in '42; a tattooed Berber woman with a gift for seeing the future; a lost tribe of primitive Jews living high in some African mountains who provide a ready-made Delta Force; and always, the haunting presence of Barney Wolkowicz, who hated the men he betrayed almost as much as he loved them.

But for our best writer of espionage -- and human nature -- "Second Sight" is a wonderful piece of work: romantic, resonant and completely absorbing.

Mr. Hunter, The Sun's film critic, is finishing his fifth novel.

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