The Prodigal Spy, Joseph Kanon

Island, 1998, 537 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-22534-5

I don’t remember being particularly enthusiastic about Joseph Kanon’s first novel, Los Alamos, and for a good reason; thrillers should thrill, not bore. Kanon’s ponderous style, while not devoid of literary merit, certainly dragged down a story which already wasn’t sinning by excessive interest. But who knows? Anything can happen in a first novel. Unfortunately, if The Prodigal Spy proves one thing, it’s that Los Alamos‘s characteristics seem to be completely characteristic of its author’s writing style. Slow. Pondered. Somewhat dull.

Once again, Kanon digs into twentieth-century American history for inspiration. The novel starts at the height of the Eugene McCarthy’s Red Scare, as a boy sees his father being interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The father may or not be a spy, but the boy thinks he’s got the proof of his father’s guilt. So he destroys it. But before anything more can happen, his father leaves into the night and passes on the other side of the Iron Curtain, never to return. His disparition is complicated by the death of a young woman upon whom much depended. For all of the novel’s latter faults, this is a pretty good beginning, especially given the portrait of the anti-Soviet witch-hunt through a boy’s eyes.

Flash-forward more than a decade. The boy, Nick, is now a student on the tumultuous American campuses of the sixties. He’s contacted by a beautiful female journalist; his father has a message for him. He wants to see his son again, but he’ll have to come and see him. In Soviet-controlled Prague.

So we’re off, and most of The Prodigal Spy will consist of one long Czechoslovakian travelogue as Nick makes contact with his father and is tasked with one mission; find the other Red agent in Washington, the one that gave away his father and killed the young woman to protect his secret.

Upon his return to Washington, Nick will have to dodge the FBI (including a pair of meetings with Edgar J. Hoover, the first of which is easily the book’s best sequence), second-guess the police, piece together the truth and ultimately unmask his father’s betrayer. Alas, as in Los Alamos, Kanon’s mystery is not much better than his pacing, and the identity of the betrayer can safely be deduced within the first hundred pages. (And given the length of the book, that’s quite early indeed.)

But is it fair to dismiss Kanon’s work as simply dull? Wouldn’t he be best compared to LeCarre, whose intricate novels of espionage also privileged atmosphere and characters over simple plotting and suspense? Well, maybe. Especially given how LeCarre’s novels were also dull and plodding. Older, more mature readers may enjoy this type of espionage thriller à l’européenne, but I myself couldn’t care less. It’s not because the Red Scare was important and is worth remembering that The Prodigal Spy is important and worth remembering. At least I’ll grant that the book has a few sex scenes.

Is it at least better than Los Alamos? I wouldn’t be able to tell given my distinct lack of interest in both. The Prodigal Spy tends to be a little bit stronger in memory, but that may very well be because I’ve just finished it: Ask me again in a year, and I’m liable to answer you with a blank stare. Apparently Kanon has written a new novel since then. I’m not sure I’ll remember to check it out.

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