389 pages. Note to the reader, and note about the author.
Charles McCarry died in February 2019. I didn't know who he was, but the obituaries described him as an ex-CIA officer who became a master of the spy novel: "McCarry is the American le Carre," wrote one reviewer, "...the greatest espionage writer that America has ever produced."
I decided I should track down one of his many novels, and my local library system came up with Lucky Bastard.
This is one heck of a novel! It is told from the perspective of Dmitri, a Soviet agent living in the U.S. and posing as a rare book collector. He works for 'Peter', a cult-like leader who runs one of the KGB directorates.
Peter's dream is to develop an asset under Soviet control, who with Communist influence and money, can advance in American politics until he can win the U.S. Presidency. Dmitri eventually finds the perfect candidate: Jack Adams, college student, draft dodger (it's the Vietnam War), gifted liar, sexual predator, and possibly the love child of JFK…
Peter's scheme gradually unfolds, trapping Jack into a compromising situation where he can be recruited by the Soviets, then using a mix of money and brute force to advance Jack's educational, professional, and political career. Brought into the mix is Morgan, an ideologue recruited by the Soviets, ordered into an arranged marriage with Jack, where she becomes his 'handler'. Other characters involve Danny, Jack's best friend who was wounded in Vietnam; and Danny's sweetheart Cindy, who once slept with Jack and can never forgive herself.
Will Peter's plan succeed? Can Jack outfox his manipulators? Can Dmitri and Morgan save Jack from his own weaknesses? What is Peter really up to? Will Americans fall for a Soviet-sponsored candidate?
There's one thing I haven't told you: this novel is hilarious! While remaining true to the ruthless methods of the KGB, the novel lampoons Communism, Americans, the liberals who unwittingly do the bidding of the Soviets, and various U.S. presidents (none mentioned by name).
I should also mention that there is a lot of sex in this novel. That is partly because the character of Jack is apparently modeled on a certain politician with a "zipper problem" (guess who), and his one-night-stands pose a considerable challenge to the conspirators. Another reason for the sexual content in this novel is the Soviets use of special agents – known as Swallows – who are trained to use sex as a means of control and coercion. Some of the sexuality is described, some of it is alluded to; if this were a movie, it would be R and not X.
As might be expected, some of what could be written in a novel in the 90s would not be acceptable today; specifically, there are two incidents involving a politician and a policeman with minors that are not 'funny' by today's standards.
This novel grabbed my attention from the start, and kept me reading (and laughing) right to the end. This is in spite of the fact that the character of Jack is thoroughly unlikable (he's probably mentally ill), and self-deluding Cindy is not much better; the interesting characters end up being Dmitri and Morgan.
Who should not read this novel? Those who are offended by the things spies do. Those who are offended by jokes about liberals (though conservatives get some jokes too). Those who might object to the sexual content.
Can you wargame it? Not directly, but the plot could certainly be used as the backdrop for a Pulpish skirmish campaign.
Reviewed by Editor in Chief Bill .