(A version of this essay appeared in my Scrapings, Etc newsletter)
So, I went to Greece. Cool, huh? I had some family to visit, so I left some worksheets for the sub for my class, the lady and I got someone to watch the cat, and we went for ten days.
While we were there, I went through my old stuff, things that my family had packed up from when I was a kid and when we lived there for a short while. Some of the stuff I found included the old comic books and novels I’d read summers, stuck there as a kid without any of the things that as a teenager, I wanted. No cable TV, no girlfriend, no air conditioning, no fast food…you get the idea.
So I read.
I read a lot. I read all the books my parents would let me buy or buy me as summer reading, I’d read old favorites I’d drag along with me, and I’d read the comics and the books I’d find in English (and sometimes in Greek too) for sale for cheap in the capital of the island I’d buy with beer and ice cream money. What I would also do is start going through my parents’ books, the stuff they’d have brought along or left behind there in this little old house out on an island in the Mediterranean. There was a ton of Tom Clancy books, there were a lot of John Grisham books, there was also Shibumi by “Trevanian” (which I’ve re-read a million times, more on this later possibly). There was also See You Later, Alligator, a spy novel about CIA agent Blackford Oakes by Willam F. Buckley, Jr. I don’t know why I latched onto this novel so much to re-read it ever year, every summer, without fail, to the point that I almost immediately fell upon it when we got there this year again automatically.
Buckley, a notorious neoconservative, the founder of the National Review, and all-around ugly person, was in a weird way, a major impact on my teenage years thanks to this book. A sort of “secret history” spy novel about a CIA mission negotiating with Che Guevara after the Bay of Pigs that is the REAL reason we discovered USSR missiles in Cuba, triggering the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s not half bad if you take into account that Buckley was trying real hard to create a sort of American Smiley in Oakes, a pre-Jack Ryan “Cold War(rior)” just like Le Carre’s character. It sort of works, in a way, as the book isn’t very action-driven and relies very much on that whole “game of wits” aspect of espionage literature that Le Carre specialized in, highlighting some of the very real and very tedious ways that espionage actually worked during the Cold War.
That alone couldn’t have been the reasons that I clung to that book though, not as a 15-year-old Greek-American kid into punk and comics spending summer in a place where I sorta spoke the language and sorta knew people, desperate to get back “home.”
The book pits Buckley’s character Oakes alongside another CIA asset, a former KGB agent-turned-CIA operator Cecilio Velasco, against Che Guevara in post-Bay of Pigs Cuba. A significant point (to me) is that Oakes and Velasco sit for over a week in a sort of limbo at a surreal beach house setting, swimming and sitting and doing nothing, wondering why they’re summoned on this secret meeting to basically sit and do nothing. Oakes reads Agatha Christie novels in Spanish to teach himself the language, and Velasco smokes a lot, something that spies apparently did in the 70’s and 80’s by the shipping container. Things happen gradually (in particular that the whole negotiations are a front to distract the US from noticing the USSR bringing in nuclear missiles to Cuba and that it’s Oakes who alerts the US to it), but that limbo period of pre-action always stuck with me, year after year, re-read after re-read.
Part of it, I think, had to do with the isolation. The characters (Oakes in particular) feel constrained by the isolation, by the lack of distractions, and that when his own distractions run out or fail to calm his brain, he finds paltry little else to appease him. I guess now we can definitely see that it’s Buckley’s attempt to illustrate just how much better or culturally-better than the commies Oakes was, but reading about spies stuck at the beach in the oppressive heat with nothing but a limited collection of books and a limited understanding of the local language, to me, was this weird parallel with my own life at the time, stuck at the beach in oppressive heat with a limited cache of books to read, no TV, limited radio, and a limited understanding of the local language (I’m better at speaking Greek now, but I’ve been working hard to not lose it as a language the past few years…another story).
Buckley’s politics have never influenced me, even though his disdain for Communism and the obvious American Superiority Complex of his stand-in protagonist is super-obvious in hindsight. The book’s one real redeeming value of the story, an interesting type of Cold War spy story, isn’t even entirely due to the author, considering how much of it resolved around a real-life world crisis. Still, that weird way that he created not a story or characters, but a particular setting, one that had no real practical story purpose other than to create a setting for sociopolitical debates as well as a growing attitude and edge of psychological annoyance revealed to be (according to the character of Velasco) a deliberate attempt at subtle espionage as well as social engineering to gain some sad little bit of upper hand.
I can’t say that Buckley’s writing style ever influenced my own either, but I feel like that bit, the beach house for spies, always sticks out in my mind as the kind of spot, the kind of weird setting that of course is somewhere, of course happens, is something to aspire to as a writer. You want to create something so weirdly memorable, something obviously ridiculous but necessary in your fiction that it’s something people remember and going back to. They go back to it summer after summer, like clockwork.
The copy at this old family house is now yellowed, coverless, the title page slowly shredding into nothingness. The paperback spine is still there though, and most of the pages are still intact, not falling out and disintegrating. I thought about saving the book, bringing it back to New York with me, to preserve this weird artifact of my childhood and teen years.
I left it where I found it, instead, next to the touchtone phone on the little table in the hallway of that small stone summer house my grandfather watches over most of the time, for the next time I get back there.