Lucky Bastard , by Charles McCarry. Random House, 385 pages, $24.95.
Last winter, as tales spread of tapes and trysts, klieg lights blazed on the White House lawn and reporters fueled by Matt Drudge raced from one nameless source to the next, Washington morphed from plodding and plain to real-life pulp fiction. “Pity the poor Washington novelist,” The Washington Post opined on Feb. 2, “hunched over his word processor trying to make imagination outfly reality. What invented scenario, what mere contrivance of plot or character, could rival the unlikely characters and improbable events that have saturated the newspapers and airwaves during the last 12 days?”
Waste no pity on Charles McCarry, a prolific and versatile Washington author. With Lucky Bastard , Mr. McCarry has spun a search-for-power saga whose layers of deception, ambition and lust would make a special prosecutor proud.
The public has shown little patience for Kenneth Starr’s self-righteous sexual sleuthing. But fiction permits us to indulge our imaginations without consequence, disloyalty or shame. As the success of Primary Colors revealed, peeping at a pol’s private life can be fun, especially when he and his escapades remind us of someone we know. Nowhere did that novel make a bigger splash than inside the Beltway, where bookstores had trouble keeping it stocked, book parties in honor of Anonymous bloomed, and White House aides wore the badge of suspected authorship with a curious mix of outrage and mirth.
Lucky Bastard makes no claim to Primary Colors ‘ verisimilitude. Instead, it acts as a fun-house mirror; the reflection is laughable, overblown, freakish, but the features are still obviously our own.
The book begins in the Vietnam War era. The bastard in question is John (Jack) Fitzgerald Adams, an Ohio orphan who firmly believes that he is John Kennedy’s love child. While a draft-dodging campus radical at Columbia University, he is lured into the clutches of two K.G.B. schemers. Their aim is to launch Jack’s political career, mold him into a winning Presidential candidate and direct America’s Marxist revolution from the desk of the Oval Office.
In order for this far-fetched plan to succeed, Jack must be the ideal candidate. In Mr. McCarry’s cynical universe, that means having a magnetic personality, instinctive political smarts and a dazzling ability to lie.
He “was a gifted orator who connected instantly with his audience,” yet “dealt in the tiniest of concepts … [W]hat worked the miracle was technique-tone, body language, facial expressions, an entire demeanor that was Jack’s alone, inimitable and endearing. The audience listened to Jack as if hearing their own thoughts. Of course, they agreed with everything he said.”
Jack also has a familiar flaw-“a potentially disastrous case of Don Juan psychosis.” He is literally a slime: He carries a jar of Vaseline in his pocket for stealthy sexual assaults. If the candidate can’t keep his zipper up, the whole operation may go bust. Yet without the carnal fixes he craves, will his brilliance fade?
Jack is surrounded by a colorful, sometimes cartoonish cast, including Peter, the ruthless Russian mastermind who “could make Andropov laugh and Brezhnev think” (and that’s “enough to make anyone fear him”); Greta, a penis-pinching German dominatrix who sounds like Marlene Dietrich and puts the Mayflower Madam to shame; and Morgan (“The Morg”), Jack’s chilly, humorless wife, an ardent radical who-fata morgana-is not what she seems.
With its generous doses of intrigue and sex, Lucky Bastard is sure to appeal to a public aroused by both-the kind of book whose flaws you forgive as you flip the pages by the pool. But it stretches the conventions of the commercial political thriller with wry observations on spycraft, campaign stagecraft and the state of American politics.
When it comes to spies and lies, Mr. McCarry writes from experience. For a decade at the height of Cold War confrontation, he was an undercover agent for the Central Intelligence Agency. Many of the liveliest descriptions in the book deal with the world of intelligence. He depicts elaborate measures to avoid detection (“Useless precautions are the silent prayers of espionage”). He reveals the culinary habits of the K.G.B. (“Every great spymaster was also a glutton”). He charts the self-immolation of that agency as the Cold War ends. He explores the corrosive effect that secrecy has on the soul as the characters struggle to stay afloat in a swelling tide of deceit. The sensibilities of a former spook haunt his portrayal of Jack, whose chameleonlike qualities are presented with awe while his cowardice is scorned.
Jack’s belief that publicity makes Presidents is facile but not without resonance. Many of the hallmarks of his hollow campaign sound familiar: His ear for sound bites, his catchy theme song, his masterful ability to connect with voters and convey an illusion of caring. Instead of developing a platform, he spends millions on the media: “[T]he camera … surrendered like a smitten trollop … and made the world see him as more lovable, wiser, and more human that he actually was.” And despite the fact that Jack stands for nothing beyond his thirst for victory, he makes people feel that he’s just like them-and they forgive him anything.
Lucky Bastard blames the liberal left for much of this myopia. Even Peter, a confirmed Marxist, has nothing but scorn for what he calls the Unconscious Underground, “that community of right-thinkers” who “manned the junction boxes of influence and opinion in America.” He recalls the unquestioning faith progressives invested in Alger Hiss: “The same people who beatified Alger will discover and love Jack.… To them, Jack’s weaknesses will be strengths, his lies truths, his crimes miracles.”
The Republicans, meanwhile, come across as inept, insipid or insane. There’s Jack’s clumsy, horse-faced rival, F. Merriwether Street; a barely disguised Gipper with a sunny disposition and a stunted intellectual repertoire; and a Perot-like tycoon who splits the G.O.P. vote and gives slippery Jack the electoral toehold he needs.
Mostly, Mr. McCarry condemns the erosion of principle in politics. Even a Communist spy with conviction is more sympathetic than Jack. Yet it’s precisely the notion that American idealism is dead-that politicians are corrupt, Presidents are crooks and government aims to do harm-which fuels the paranoia and suspicion that permit conspiracies like this one to thrive.
Lucky Bastard is dedicated to the memory of novelist Richard Condon, and is a distant descendant of his book The Manchurian Candidate , the mother of all conspiracies. Instead of being brainwashed by Communist agents to kill a Presidential candidate, Jack is blackmailed by Communist agents into running for President himself. Instead of a domineering mom, Jack has a nagging wife. And if some believe The Manchurian Candidate prophesied John F. Kennedy’s murder, Kennedy’s spirit permeates the pages of Lucky Bastard .
In an homage to Condon, Mr. McCarry wrote that “America never quite regained its psychic feet after Dallas.” Kennedy’s death triggered the fear that some mysterious hand was pulling the nation’s strings for personal gain. But if conspiracy theories are the dark side of our democracy (in the land of the free, where everything is possible, anything is conceivable), democracy is also conspiracy’s best antidote.
And if Lucky Bastard would have us believe that politics is the business of screwing and getting screwed, that sound bites trump substance, that charisma beats character and that sex, lies and videotape can determine the fate of the nation, Mr. McCarry still holds out hope for the system whose foibles and faults he lampoons. Jack Adams may have been born to run, but he’s no Jack Kennedy.