Being a writer of political fiction can't be easy in 1998. Not only did the
Berlin Wall come down, bringing the Cold War to a screeching halt and
practically wiping out your whole raison d'jtre in one fell swoop, but on
any given news day, the plain truth is not only far stranger than fiction,
it's downright surreal, driving most writers to the outer limits of their
imagination just to keep up.
On the other hand, Charles McCarry, who with such books as "Shelley's
Heart" and "The Secret Lovers" has established himself as one of the most
provocative and sharp-edged writers of contemporary political fiction,
seems to have accepted these post-Cold War realities as a challenge, as an
opportunity to entertain his wildest fancies. In his latest novel, "Lucky
Bastard," he's done exactly that: thrown caution to the winds and created a
story that is sexy, unpredictable and extravagantly imaginative without
ever losing the ring of recognizable truth.
If in the process McCarry manages to make playful, naughty fun of some of
contemporary American culture's most sacred myths, then all the better.
What if, McCarry boldly asks, one of our most cherished (and martyred)
ex-presidents, during the course of one of his fabled departures from the
straight-and-narrow, were to have fathered an illegitimate son? And what if
that son -- who possesses some of his father's most famous (and some of his
most notorious) traits -- were to seek out for himself a career in
politics, rising first to state attorney general, then lieutenant governor, then
governor, and then ... beyond?
His name is Jack Adams -- or rather, John Fitzgerald Adams -- and, as he
tells it, his mother, who was at the time a member of the Navy Nurse Corps,
met a certain young Navy officer in a San Francisco hospital shortly after
a Japanese destroyer smashed into his PT boat in the Pacific. The window of
opportunity was brief, but the young officer's injuries were not so severe
that he missed it. Twenty-one years later, the product of that quick tryst
surfaces on history's radar as a student at Columbia with skills as a
politician that are characterized as a "natural talent, flowing straight
from the unconscious."
This talent is part of the luck referred to in the book's title. But it
goes beyond that to a kind of genius for studying people, for finding out
what they want and "making them believe he was giving it to them even when
he wasn't." This uncanny knack for making others like him and trust him is
the prime component of the character's unfathomable good luck. (It's a
characteristic he shares with another political Jack -- the candidate in
"Primary Colors.") McCarry also asks us to consider what might happen if
Jack, while clawing his way to the top of the political heap, were to
somehow come to the attention of an agent from Soviet intelligence who sees
the young American as a chance to realize "the ultimate dream of the KGB"
-- to see an agent of the Soviet government elected as the president of the
United States. To accomplish this, the agent must take advantage of yet
another aspect of Jack's personality that he inherited from his father --
"an aura of sexual glamour" matched in intensity only by a voracious sexual
appetite that is both the driving force behind his irresistible charm and,
ultimately, the engine of his undoing.
Clearly, McCarry intends for this last aspect of Jack's character
to be Kennedy-esque. But this scenario also applies to a more contemporary
political figure who also seems to suffer from a "zipper problem"; someone
who has himself been described both in his politics and his many reported
excesses as the bastard child of JFK. McCarry's shrewdness and skill are
evident in the way he has orchestrated these character traits so that they
have a sort of double resonance, echoing off the Kennedy legend
while also functioning as a rousing absurdist riff on Clintonian politics.
If, in all this, McCarry is essentially realistic, he is by no means
straight-faced. In this regard, he has more in common with Richard Condon
than with John Le Carri. A keen sense of proportion guides even McCarry's most
outrageous flights. He may tease the boundaries of plausibility, but never
so much that his wit loses its potency. It's a cynical, cut-throat world
that he's created here, a place where no weakness goes unexploited and no
good deed goes unpunished.