Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter; drawing by David Levine

It’s hard not to read reports of public crises and disasters the way we read novels of conspiracy and intrigue. Political upheavals, assassinations and mass atrocity, material shortages and monetary nightmares all invite a paranoid interpretation—somewhere there must be people who are doing this to us on purpose. History unquestionably is conspiratorially manipulated from time to time, but even if it weren’t, we would want to think so, hoping against hope that a secularized world can still, however dreadfully, make sense. If the CIA did not exist, it would probably be necessary to invent it, along with International Communism, Zionism, the Mafia, the PLO, the John Birch Society, OPEC, and bankers.

Although the CIA figures prominently in all the books I’m here concerned with, the governing mood of such fiction is of course much older than that beleaguered Agency. The mood goes back at least as far as the thrillers I read in childhood, stories by John Buchan, Edgar Wallace, Sax Rohmer, and E. Phillips Oppenheim in which Scotland Yard or some heroic agent saved Western civilization from nefarious cabals of gangsters, financiers, bolsheviks, or Chinamen. But these stories took place in never-never land; if a figure like Dr. Fu Manchu vaguely pandered to Occidental anxieties about the Boxers or Sun Yat-sen, opium, immigration, and the Yellow Peril generally, no one quite cared to admit it. In the last ten or fifteen years, however, such books have become more specific. Real public figures appear, often in scandalous situations, under their own or very similar names, historical events and fictitious ones mix and blur together, the bad guys and the good guys are hard to tell apart.

Robert Coover, E. L. Doctorow, Ishmael Reed, and—preeminently—Thomas Pynchon, for example, can make use of this mood and its methods in serious fiction. But it’s not good books but bad ones that best reveal the nature of a genre, and Edward Jay Epstein’s Cartel is bad enough to be instructive. The time is 1953, Mohammed Mossadeq has nationalized the Iranian oil fields, and the international petroleum companies and the British and American governments are arranging his downfall at the hands of the CIA. Cartel, that is to say, is a romance founded very firmly in modern history.

Since modern history strikingly lacks heroes, however, Epstein has to invent one: Jacob Jasmine, tall, handsome, sexy, and brilliant young assistant professor of government at Harvard, an expert in the theory of coups d’état who’s gullible enough to plan the overthrow and murder of Mossadeq while thinking he’s just designing a new “game of nations” exercise. Since modern history doesn’t offer many heroines either, Epstein supplies two incredible ones—a brainy young Oxford-trained logician who turns up in Jasmine’s class, and her sister, at twenty-two “Britain’s leading authority on pre-Raphaelite art.” She has caught the fancy of the oil consortium’s chief tactician and heavy, who keeps trying to press original Rossettis upon her. In due course Jasmine goes to bed with both sisters, when he’s not tied up with the CIA’s attempts to kill him.

Since Mossadeq did fall, Jasmine’s struggle to save him hasn’t much suspense. But Epstein diverts us by introducing real characters—Calouste and Nubar Gulbenkian, Enrico Mattei, John Foster and Allen Dulles, and H. Norman Schwartzkopf all make appearances, some of them quite disreputable. Other characters may need a little translating. Might “Lord Crumonde” of “Anglo-Iranian Oil” suggest Lord Strathalmond of Anglo-Persian (as BP was then called)? Does “Kim Adams” of the CIA, scion of presidents, who serves up the Iranian coup, resemble Kermit Roosevelt? Could (just to show that I’m paying attention) the book’s “Frank Bell” have something to do with Karl Twitchell of SOCAL? In any event, Epstein also drops the names of real people who don’t figure in the story—Deterding of Shell, Teagle of Esso, the young Henry Kissinger, Anthony Eden, the Shah of Shahs, and so on—with a guileless gusto that reminds me fondly of Beerbohm’s ‘Savonarola’ Brown: “Enter BOCCACCIO, BENVENUTO CELLINI, and many others, making remarks highly characteristic of themselves but scarcely audible through the terrific thunderstorm which now bursts over Florence….”

The styles of living of important people are treated as extravagantly as public history. In the tradition of Ian Fleming, Epstein’s people are orgiasts of the higher consumption. There are the obligatory Rolls-Royces, the luxury hotels, the dinners at famous restaurants and grand private clubs like the Brook and the Metropolitan. Some of the menus are a little stomach rumbling—how about gulls’ eggs, game pie, and Stilton washed down with “a rich Petrus,” or eggs Benedict and Courvoisier, or oysters, rack of lamb, and cherries jubilee?

This taste for splendor, however, sometimes breaks the thin bonds of credence that are needed to keep such a story connected with any kind of life. I just won’t believe that, in 1953 or any other year, a New York Times reporter on the trail of a story his editors haven’t even heard about could hope to charge his expense account for a $200 taxi ride from New York to Boston, dinners at the Sans Souci, and first-class flights to Teheran. Nor can I care about the fate of a supposedly sophisticated academic who falls for the offer of an obscure British academic publisher (a CIA cover) to fly him to London, put him up at the Dorchester, and pay him a huge advance for his dissertation on political theory.


Cartel is in fact full of small blunders that keep spoiling its larger designs. Did people in Washington (!) and Cambridge (!!) take Joe McCarthy as lightly as the book’s two brief and rather jocular references to him suggest? Did women wear body stockings in 1953? Did people say “nitty-gritty”? Were there paperback bookstores in Harvard Square? What is one to make of the description of that year’s Harvard commencement, where women receive their BAs in the Yard (not at Radcliffe), where all the doctoral candidates wear crimson robes (which were, I believe, adopted in 1955 and even then were uncommon, because you couldn’t rent them), where the choir sings a “Bach oratorio” (the only work of Bach’s that’s called an oratorio by anyone is a set of six cantatas for Christmas, which sounds like an odd selection). If Epstein had spent less time reading books on the oil industry and more time asking older people what 1953 was really like, Cartel would be easier to take. And why, by the way, does he establish a mysterious parentage for Jasmine, a bastard who knows of his father only that he’s an “international tycoon” who likes flowers, and then never resolve the puzzle? Since the only likely candidates appear to be the all-too-historical Gulbenkians, maybe the publisher’s lawyers have done some editing, but it looks as if nobody else has.

This is perhaps cruel to Epstein, an investigative journalist of some distinction who’s trying his hand at fiction for the first time. But his book shows that it takes more skill and care than he has to conflate two popular literary modes. One is the bare-faced Flemingesque fantasia of global conspiracy, the technology of modern violence, and the virtues of toughness and expensive tastes, which spoofs our anxieties about politics and war, and our ability to live it up while we worry, and asks to be taken about as seriously as a Sigmund Romberg operetta. The other is the historical novel, which, whether serious or not, tries to show unremarkable people like us living through times of public crisis. The hybrid form means to suggest that we can learn about the world even as we participate in fantasies about being rich, powerful, and seductive. But these modes don’t really blend, and even successful matings of them like The Crash of ’79 by Paul Erdman require some luck. Erdman happens to know a good deal about the shabbier aspects of international finance, and he has the advantage of wanting to get even with the Swiss government, multinational banks, currency speculators, and all the other parties to his own incarceration some years ago. Knowledge and passion help, and Epstein, who in the end allows the CIA to spare both Jasmine’s and Mossadeq’s lives for no clear reason, seems lacking in both.

David Atlee Phillips’s The Carlos Contract has knowledge and a little passion, if not much else. Phillips, an ex-CIA man and a public apologist for the Agency at a time when it badly needs one, tells a very timely story. A big international oil company is losing a lot of time and money because of the kidnapping and murder of its overseas executives, a nefarious effort that’s being “orchestrated” by a single person, the “Carlos” we’ve read about in the papers. Since Carlos is also bumping off CIA station chiefs at an ungodly rate, the company and the Company get together and hire William (“Mack the Knife”) McLendon, now in retirement but once “the best street man in the outfit,” to find Carlos and make him disappear.

This too is a big-budget production. McLendon is no gourmet (he doesn’t touch the “epicurean” dinner he’s served on the Concorde), but he does know plenty about high-priced weapons and booze; at one endearing point he has to explain to an elegant friend from MI-6 that he’s staying at the Holiday Inn because both Brown’s and the Connaught were booked. And above all, he gets around, flying this impressive circuit (all first-class, naturally) before his manhunt ends: Washington/New York/ Washington/London/Bonn/London/ Rome/London/Rio de Janeiro/Washington/etc. In most of these places nothing is learned that a three-minute phone call wouldn’t have uncovered, but lots of authentic local color is worked up. I wonder what the oil company’s accountants made of McLendon’s expense sheets.


The only interesting thing in the story is the climactic revelation that “Carlos” really isn’t Carlos at all, but a rogue CIA man who has killed the terrorist and taken over his operations just to get some demented kicks. In effect, the contents of political action—the ideologies and demands for power that terrorism, for example, seems to express—slip away, leaving us to suppose rather comfortably that our public enemies are bad only for private reasons. I doubt that this reflects the CIA’s or Phillips’s own view of the world, but I can see why he may want us to imagine that there is no Carlos, no ideological terrorism, only irrational acts of personal aggression that can be dealt with by (to adopt what seems to be a term of the trade) putting the aggressive persons out of business. The world according to Phillips is a simple place, not terribly close to where we live. One of the station chiefs Carlos rubs out is reassuringly named James Bond. But I think that Phillips would like us to feel some connection with his world. McLendon doesn’t want to kill the pseudo-Carlos when he catches him, he’s basically nonpolitical, he even owns a Siqueiros lithograph. The Agency isn’t really such a bad bunch when you get to know them. Indeed The Carlos Contract won’t trouble readers who worry about the CIA, but only because it’s so dull.

There is no CIA in Richard Condon’s Death of a Politician, though there is something called the Secret Police (or SP), with headquarters in Semley, Maryland, which seems equally sinister. But Condon, who prefaces his story with Lord Acton’s gloomy remark that “great men are almost always bad men,” has more on his mind than mere spy-stuff. His domain is the dirty linen closets of politics and money (several of his novels deal with the rise and destruction of families very like the Kennedys), and his view—it might be called Condon’s Law—is that when you don’t know the whole truth, the worst you can imagine is bound to be close.

Here Condon considers the murder, in 1964 at the Waldorf Astoria, of Walter Bodmor Slurrie, former congressman and senator, vice president of the United States from 1952 to 1960, unsuccessful Republican candidate for the presidency in the latter year, a hypocrite who’s well known for his dirty campaigns, his anticommunism, and his love of properly laundered money. If Slurrie sounds just a little like what’s-his-name, there are some other familiar types around too—Richard Betaut, pint-sized former crime-busting DA and governor of New York, twice defeated for the presidency but still a power in the party, in whose apartment Slurrie’s body is found; Nils Felsenburshe, current head of the richest family in the world who may have political ambitions himself; David Arnold Dieter (“Dad”) Kampferhaufe, revered military hero and president who never let Slurrie come upstairs in the White House or get off the helicopter at Camp David; Horace Riddle Hind, reclusive billionaire from out West with a taste for actresses, plain food, old movies, and soothing drugs, who buys up Las Vegas and bankrolls Slurrie’s excursions into corruption; Eddie (“Kiddo”) Cardozo, small-time Hispanic mobster from Miami who’s Slurrie’s guide, philosopher, and friend in many lucrative deals.

This is all bad enough, but Condon adds undreamed of horrors to what we knew or suspected about certain public figures. Slurrie got in with the Mafia by slipping them used tires when he worked in OPA, and they’ve directed his career ever since. Traumatized in his formative years by seeing his stern father copulating with a cow, Slurrie is helplessly impotent, and the ever-obliging Cardozo has had to beget his two sons. He won the vice-presidential nomination, despite Dad Kampferhaufe’s loathing of him, because the Felsenburshes, Horace Hind, the Secret Police, and the Mob all wanted to have their man (he was everyone’s man) at the center of things, where he could help organize or coordinate the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam war, the assassination of the man who beat him in 1960, and the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald.

I’m not the first to observe that Condon’s contempt for his readers almost matches his contempt for his characters. It’s naughty of him to put the rise of Castro a decade too early, for example, just so that he can dump something else on the Kampferhaufe-Slurrie administration, and not all readers will find hilarious his insistence that Kiddo Cardozo sounds like Bill Dana playing “Jose Jimenez”: “Lemme tell joo one thing. If I ever get my hans on the bahstair who kill Wullair I am firsz gun estoff him opp his own culo, then I am gun work on him with a axe. When you buss jawr ahss with a man for twenny years then some cogswawker come in an hit him you blow your rug. Oh, jess….” (Notice that “joo” in the first sentence quickly changes to plain old “you.”) And while some scenes are reasonably diverting—I like the suggestion that Nils Felsenburshe never got nominated for president because he didn’t need or want to be, that his failed candidacies were only to keep us from noticing that he’d been running the country all along—still there’s not much political analysis. But then Condon isn’t an analyst but an exploiter of our need to believe the worst. He does it skillfully, but his books would be less fun than they are if one didn’t suspect that he believes the worst too, that his pictures of a world of fools eternally at the mercy of knaves are also pictures of what, with anger and disgust, he takes to be the case.

One other book, though its intentions are quite different, may be mentioned here. In Smoke, Alexander Cockburn and James Ridgeway attempt a topical political satire on the order of Philip Roth’s Our Gang. It seems to me not to come off, perhaps because its premise—that the present administration is cynically waffling between our need for energy and our desire to preserve the environment—seems out of scale with its conclusion—atomic holocaust.

The authors obviously mean well, but their good intentions get swamped by a suicidally impartial hostility to all the persons and positions they consider, and by a desire to get as many laughs as possible. Wherever you look in the Republic, there is weakness, vanity, dumbness, greed. Carter himself is indecisive, manipulative, racist, mindless; we hear of Mondale’s “habitual plaintive whine,” Brzezinski is “the loquacious and conceited Pole,” James Schlesinger dreams lasciviously of preemptive strikes, the White House staff keeps turning up in funny costumes:

Jimmy in his new flared French jeans, with tennis shirt by Jean of New York; Jody in a St. Laurent après ski; and Ham in Sunny Surplus jeans and Vietnam Vet Shirt. Ham with his usual sartorial wit had retained the World War I gas mask dangling on his khaki belt and Jody wore an Iron Cross and bent hairpins from Punkadelic. Round their necks gleamed spent 30 cal. silver bullets suspended on rusty iron chain.

Even if I understood the point of this, I wouldn’t know how to connect it to the charges Cockburn and Ridgeway have to make against these people; it’s like suggesting that you could detect the moral rot in the CREEP people from their business suits and short hair.

And those who’ve had it with Carter will have to look hard for comfort elsewhere in Smoke. The Republicans are dodos; Scoop Jackson keeps giving the Nazi salute; Jerry Brown is a brainless poseur who dreams that he’s been elected president only to be cast out by a universal cry for the restoration of Nixon. The conservationist leaders are trendy rich people trying to appease their guilty consciences even as they secretly play ball with Carter; their grass-roots followers are well-meaning victims of their own moral cant. The book is either a grumpy dismissal of all political possibility in these bad times or—since he alone is spared the authors’ malice—a plea to Teddy Kennedy to come and save us.

Smoke is neither as amusing nor as scary as it presumably means to be. Part of its trouble, I think, is that it’s set in the future, in 1980, so that public or semipublic figures are ridiculed or condemned not for what they did or could have done but for what they might do if they’re as hopeless as Cockburn and Ridgeway think they are. This sacrifices the rhetorical leverage that even imaginary history obtains from being expressed in some form of the past tense. And though Smoke doesn’t in the least pretend to be the kind of thriller the other books aspire to being, it does show that our anxieties about public life may be better accommodated by stories whose villains aren’t quite so directly and literally identified with people we have to keep worrying about when we’re not reading stories. Satiric caricature has its uses, when it’s well done, but mainly I prefer to find the real toads in imaginary gardens. The idea of a world of enemies has to be dealt with seriously whenever it assumes the form of fact, which is often enough; at other times it’s probably better to confine it to a stylized and trivial kind of fiction, where its attractiveness can do us less harm.

This Issue

February 8, 1979