June 22, 2009

Under Consideration: Banquo’s Ghosts, by Richard Lowry and Keith Korman, Vanguard Press (2009), 352 pages. 

You have to feel a little sorry for the two neocons who co-wrote Banquo’s Ghosts. The idea seems simple enough: a Tom Clancy-style thriller about a plot to kill an Iranian physicist before he can cook up a nuke for the mullahs. The problem is, where do you get your hero these days? Back in the day, when Clancy was keeping Reagan awake way past 9 pm with Hunt for Red October, it was easy to make US agents like Jack Ryan look good; after all, they were going up against the dregs of the poor old USSR.

It’s not anywhere near as easy to convince readers nowadays that our spooks are superhuman, not after Iraq and especially not where Iran is concerned. The grim fact is that Iran has outplayed us since I was a kid. I mean that literally. Some of my earliest and nastiest memories are from the hostage crisis in 1979, scared blindfolded hostages, then the wreckage of Desert Storm, a greasy mullah holding up the roasted arm of a dead American solder. From Carter to Bush Junior, it’s been one embarrassment after another at the hands of those sneaky Persians.

So Lowry and Korman have changed with the times. Their patriotic agent characters, Banquo and his lieutenant Wallets, are sort of tired and weak in this book, bummed about the way Iraq turned out. When you meet Banquo, he’s looking over a lot of high-tech surveillance of Nasrullah, the Hezbollah leader”€”except Banquo realizes the guy wearing the chemically-dyed turban may be a body double, or a nobody. Banquo is bummed, realizing all the satellites in the world won”€™t make up for the fact we”€™ve got no humint worth mentioning in the Middle East: “€œ”€˜We”€™re losing,”€™ Banquo whispered to the walls.”€

Yes, Banquo’s world, Tom Clancy’s world, is going to Hades. The CIA isn”€™t what it used to be, thanks to all this new touchy-feely crap:

…”€™voluntary”€™ sexual harassment and racial sensitivity seminars. … Delays and overruns had slowed the men’s bathroom renovations”€”an installation of two hundred quality Care Bear changing tables “€˜for your convenience.”€™ When what”€”Mr. Mom wet himself? … And … at 4:30 pm, the Agency employees lined up in the Langley parking lot, shuffling off to their minivan carpools for their suburban commute home.

Minivans! Diaper-changing tables! Car pools!  With friends like that, it stands to reason that poor Banquo can”€™t count on the usual allies to take on the Iranians.

But the biggest blow to Tom Clancy’s world is pretty clear, as this book admits in a weird, very interesting way. We”€™re in Banquo’s office, while the depressed old agent thinks about why “€œwe”€™re losing.”€ He settles on a poster:

A couple of years back one of Banquo’s staff hung a framed replica of Fox Mulder’s famous alien saucer poster on the wall. … Except this poster showed Saddam’s noble profile superimposed over a mushroom cloud. The caption stayed the same though, a comment on the Agency’s egregiously wrong “€˜slam dunk”€™ insistence that Iraq had WMD’s when none could be found:
“I Want to Believe.”

So for the good of the firm and reasons of professional grit, the senior and only partner of Banquo and Duncan had left it there.

To hang forever as a warning.

I was amazed to read that bit in a novel by the editor of a neocon outpost like National Review. It’s about as close to admitting, “€œWe messed up,”€ as these guys are ever going to come. And it helps to explain the big plot twist in the novel. Since the neocons and the CIA are so bummed, depressed, and discredited, you can”€™t just find a Jack Ryan and put him on the bad guys”€™ trail. You need to find a new kind of hero. And that’s where these two co-author dudes really outdid themselves. See, they need someone to kill that pesky Iranian physicist, but their boys are weak, car-pooling losers. Where’s the energy, the drive, these days? Why, across the aisle, among those damn lefties and peaceniks. They”€™re the ones on the attack. So Banquo recruits an antiwar Lefty, a Brit reporter named Peter Johnson, who took Saddam’s money and spends most of his time telling TV audiences that Iran is harmless, and only wants nukes for peaceful energy.

It’s pretty clear, if you”€™re an old CNN fan like me, than this Johnson character is a pretty obvious take on Peter Arnett, the reporter who got fired after the first Iraq war. Johnson character is a drunk, a slob, an all-around mess, and an America-hater from way back”€”all the stuff the Pentagon said about Arnett.

But Johnson is only a leftie on the surface. Inside, he’s sick of himself, ashamed of having served the forces of evil all his life. And just in case you were in any doubt that they really are the forces of evil, there’s a long scene at a snooty Manhattan dinner party where the reader meets Johnson’s lefty boss, Josephine Parker von Hildebrand. Josephine is just about the evilest witch-queen since Snow White: “€œJosephine had practically every desirable personal characteristic, except wisdom and mercy.”€ Gee, that sounds like she actually isn”€™t a nice person at all! Well, this isn”€™t one of those subtle type novels. If it had a soundtrack, it”€™d be heavy on the Count Dracula organ notes every time Josephine appears.

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The scene at her snooty dinner party is maybe the worst in the novel. Basically, all the cool lefties at the party turn into rabid Jew-hating Nazis after their second glass of wine. It’s the old line that anybody who ever criticizes Israel can”€™t really mean what they say; they must be secret Nazis just waiting for some pretext to spew up their hate. Even Johnson, the peacenik, is outraged at what he hears: “But of all the Jew-haters he despised”€”more than any neo-Nazi skinhead”€”were the pointy-headed intellectuals, the sophisticated, sleight-of-hand Jew-haters, the let’s-adopt-the-Saudi-peace-plan, and gosh-aren”€™t-these-people-awfully-pushy-and-greedy-for-such-a-little-country? Jew-haters.” Right. Meaning, anybody who ever quibbled with any Israeli policy. Ever. Well, that settles that. To show you how evil these non-neocons truly are, they start talking like little Hitlers. Now, I can”€™t speak from personal experience here”€”contrary to what you might expect, I don”€™t get invited to all that many cool Manhattan parties”€”but it’s a little hard to believe that this New York leftist magazine is secretly staffed by a bunch of Hitlerites.

But that’s what it comes to, for the hardcore neocon propagandist: if you ever disagree with Israel, if you ever try to say that maybe blasting Gaza wasn”€™t the smartest idea, then it’s the express bus to Swastika-ville. You”€™re a Nazi, and that’s that.

The Jew-hatery gets so bad that poor drunken Johnson is about to punch one of the Israel-bashers, when he’s held back by Banquo’s mysterious second-in-command, Wallets. Banquo & co. want Johnson to stay in place, pretend to be a good lefty, and use his connections to the evil Katrina. See, long ago at Oxford, Johnson used to be married to this bitch, and he’s still her boy, forced to write politically-correct articles even when he knows he’s lying.

Naturally, Johnson turns out to be totally ready to betray all his buddies on the left. That’s another cute little twist Lowry and Korman have come up with in this novel: every time you meet a leftist or Iranian, they say something anti-leftist or anti-Iranian. It’s like the authors think all their opponents are just faking it, just to be pains in the ass, and with a little blackmail and a chance at redemption, they”€™d love to see the light and put Bush back in office.

Johnson’s redemption, with the help of Banquo’s Lieutenant Wallets, is a classic spy-novel version of Rocky. First, the hero hits rock bottom, which in this case means Johnson gets humiliated on the street by three black kids who slash his pants, steal his wallet and leave him standing there feeling raped. Out of nowhere comes this suave killer, Wallets, and before you can say “€œChuck Norris,”€ he stomps the three muggers, makes the last one standing hand Johnson’s credit cards back (and apologize), and then gives the muggers his business card, in case they mend their ways and choose to get serious and professional about beating people up.

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It’s a very weird scene, but if you grew up reading this kind of stuff, it”€™ll seem pretty familiar. Anybody besides me remember a 1970s spy novel called The Spike? It was co-written by that Armand de Bouchgrave guy, who was one of the first editors-in-chief at The Washington Times, and it was all about corrupt leftist journalists distorting the news. I loved that novel back then”€”I wasn”€™t the most sophisticated reader, maybe”€”and I remember how Armand liked to show how these lefties were never real men”€”their girlfriends were always going out on them or making fun of what you might call their “€œlove-making abilities.”€ Took me back, this novel, to those glory days when it was simple to hate the libs, before the neocons made it hard to focus on hating anybody besides them. 

Anyway, Wallets turns into a real man, but along the way he makes sure to bitch-slap the Brit around. So when Johnson complains that he’s fifty, too old to learn spycraft, Wallets gives him the open hand: “€œWallets held up a stern hand. Then said sarcastically, “€˜We never mention a lady’s age.”€™ He glanced at his watch. “€˜I”€™d say that’s enough for today. Thank you, Peter. You can let yourself out.’”€

Oooooh, burn! “€œ…a lady’s age….”€! And in case you were in danger of missing the burn, they put “€œlady”€ in italics! And then the crusher, “€œYou can let yourself out.”€!

Of course, Johnson goes to Iran, gets tortured, redeems himself, wins the respect of the real men like Banquo and Wallets, but it’s like that’s not enough for the guys who wrote this novel. So they tack on one corny cliffhanger after another.

First a team of Iranian agents tries to smuggle toxic slime into NYC (as if anybody”€™d even notice!) and then Johnson’s daughter, the one person he truly loves, etc., gets kidnapped”€”you know, just like Clancy did in Patriot Games. She’s OK, don”€™t worry, but the last little slap in the testicles for poor Johnson is that just as he’s making dinner for his rescued daughter, she tells him, “€œDaddy, I have a date”€… and guess who the lucky man is? None other than Wallets, the real man who called her dad a “€œlady”€ and whipped him into shape before sending him to certain death.

So although Lowry and Korman have figured out that the usual pool of Jack Ryans is dried up and discredited after Iraq, they haven”€™t figured out much else. They know enough to make an outsider, a leftist, their new hero, but they never figure out what to do with him, besides make him the worst, most unconvincing action hero since Dice Clay as Ford Fairlane. And even when he’s done his bit against the mullahs, they can”€™t help giving him that one last knee in the balls.

It’s not a bad way to look at how the neocons operate: so damn arrogant and stone-deaf that even when they know they’re totally wrong, they can”€™t help welcoming outsiders to their little club with a friendly knee to the balls.


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