Sunday, February 17, 2008

Joseph Weisberg: An Ordinary Spy

An Ordinary Spy by Joseph Weisberg is unlike any spy novel I’ve ever read. Since I like spy stories, that’s not necessarily a good thing. But actually, in this case, it works out.

The story is an intertwining narrative of two CIA case officers operating in the same foreign city separated by a few years. The protagonist is Mark Ruttenburg, a struggling new CIA employee. His predecessor is Bobby Goldstein, who was a rising star. There is nothing exotic in their jobs. They shared a mentor named William who pops up in odd ways through the narrative.

Unlike most spy stories, there is nothing exciting or glamorous going on here. The job of a case officer is to recruit agents. It’s a grindingly dull process that can result in very unimportant information, but tragic consequences for an exposed agent.

We watch Mark grinding through his days, accomplishing very little, but ultimately gaining some useful information. Unfortunately he breaks an unbreakable rule in the process. We watch Bobby going through the same grind, with more positive results, demonstrating his star qualities. But he also runs afoul of fundamental rules. We think that William brings the two together after their respective downfalls, but aren’t really sure, and don’t know why.

Joseph Weisberg is a former CIA agent, and submitted the manuscript for review. The book is published with words, phrases, paragraphs, and even a whole page blacked out, presumably by CIA censers. Any reference to the city or country the events take place in, or the nationalities of recruited agents, is blacked out. The same is true of any descriptions of field-craft. So we are left with a pretty choppy story. In some ways it feels like a book written partly in a foreign language, where we choose not to look up the parts we don’t understand. Instead we just piece things together from the parts we do understand.

If we view An Ordinary Spy as a classic spy story, it is too choppy, too unresolved, and falls short. If we view it as a novel exploring Mark Ruttenberg’s struggle with right and wrong, and how to live a meaningful life, the redacted chunks don’t matter. So the book is not so much an entertaining story, as a meaningful read.

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