Friday, June 21, 2013

The Book You Have to Read: “In Deep,”
by Bernard Wolfe

(Editor’s note: This is the 128th entry in our ongoing series about great but forgotten books. Today’s piece comes from Steven Nester, the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Steve has become a regular contributor to this series; his last piece looked back at Kem Nunn’s first novel, Tapping the Source [1984]. You’ll find Steve’s previous offerings here.)

In Deep, a 1957 spy thriller written by Bernard Wolfe, is a lot of book. An angry tirade against the socialist cause corrupted by a pernicious and amoral bureaucracy, a full-frontal parody of academics and authors in search of the genuine, a satire of Cuban jazz musicians who eye the big time as they foment revolution in the ghettos, a pithy commentary on human motivation, and an ironic account of the relations between the sexes, In Deep takes it all on without ever becoming too pedantic or too irritating.

The novel has all the ornamentation for a door-stopping epic; but instead of getting his Dr. Zhivago on, Wolfe keeps the story manageable by situating it within the confines of Key West, Florida, and Cuba during the 1950s. At its simplest, In Deep is an adventure novel in which hubris and revenge galvanize a man of action to engage foreign agents at their own game.

After Cuban idealist Barto Caro is murdered by European spymaster Michael Brod in Key West, his best buddy Robert Garmes determines to avenge that crime. Barto and Brod, we learn, have a very interesting history. While fighting for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Barto’s fellow-traveler father was kidnapped by Brod for challenging Soviet policy and was never heard from again. The younger Caro was luckier: Shot in the back by Brod while battling Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces, Barto survived, but Brod was unaware of that fact. Now, 20 years later, Brod hears of Barto Caro’s determination to kill him, and moves quickly to ambush Barto.

Faster than you can say Che Lives!, Barto’s friend Garmes is on his way to Cuba in pursuit of Brod, watched over by CIA agents and Brod’s own people. The CIA needs Garmes to lead them to spymaster Brod, who has information they crave. Time is tight, for Brod has been recalled home--and we all know what that means. First, however, he must eliminate Garmes, before Barto’s vengeful pal can complicate his getaway. But Brod is curious: Just who is this persistent amateur who’s been dogging him?

Any spy novel worth its cloak and dagger must have a clever plot, believable characters, trenchant observations, perhaps a bit of irony showing how similar Cold War antagonists actually were, and a compelling resolution--components that put the bitterness of spy versus spy on a human level. This book has all of those, but it also possesses a keen sense of humor that’s rarely found in espionage novels to the extent that it’s used here--and that’s why you want to read In Deep. While not as sly as say, Our Man in Havana, what distinguishes In Deep from the pack is its veracious and voracious satirizing. Wolfe, with Garmes as his mouthpiece, settles many accounts with humor that entertains and edifies, while also revealing the core of his characters and the folly of their ways.

Vincent Caprio, In Deep’s morally vacant yet highly efficient American espionage agent, walks “with scoutmaster briskness.” He’s described by Garmes as having “something too damned hardworking and clean cut about him, he reminded me of a YMCA counselor who gives a good account of himself on the parallel bars. His hair was despicably neat, and he didn’t blink enough.”

Musicologist and socialist sympathizer Owen Brooke, meanwhile, is “a coupon-clipping professor who thinks he’s a share-cropper” and is unwittingly used to lure Garmes to Cuba and into Brod’s reach. Brooke escorts Garmes into the island nation’s interior to experience the indigenous Afro-Cuban jazz which he believes is unsullied by homogenizing capitalist show-biz exploiters. And the musicians do put on a show, but while the professor believes he’s listening to the real thing, the band--with “New York-rapt eyes above the Congo lips”--is playing for another audience.
This was a Shubert Alley rendition of Africa, the jungle as jazzbo sociology professors dreamed of it behind their box hedges. In his staged Africa there was one and only one rite, the invocation Booking.
The fiction of American novelist Nelson Boyar (a man of the people as well as a yachtsman), who likes to believe that his books aid the socialist cause, is censured here by Brod as a “silly brand of literary proletarianism.” “Movements are inane literary critics,” Brod says as he lambastes the crestfallen writer. “They’ll acclaim any written word that acclaims them.”

And then we have Connie. This witty and wily Key West sex kitten, with whom Robert Garmes maintains a star-crossed romance, is lured to Cuba by U.S. agent Caprio as added bait for Garmes to follow. With a little bit of scratch and a little bit of purr she keeps Garmes off balance. She’s the obtainable vixen who can never to be possessed, and he can’t get enough of her. “I don’t care how many men you’ve had, you’re an incorrigible virgin,” Garmes insists. “You’ve never been had. You’ve only been touched on the outside, where it doesn’t count.” And Connie knows what she’s doing, too.
But in a matter of seconds the quills were out of her voice and she was playing with my earlobes and saying, with tin cups in her words, let’s get out of here, Robbie.
Michael Brod is a seasoned spy, and author Wolfe gives him some pretty heavy credentials. He was the assassin of a Leon Trotsky stand-in, and he played a role in the Soviets attaining American atomic bomb secrets. He’s at the end of a long career and knows his usefulness to his masters is over. Faithful to the cause, he’d never defect to the West, even if it meant saving his own life. Brod is determined to come in from the cold and face execution, if only because it’s the one choice he can make that is solely his. He knows that he’s going to get it, but whether the bullet comes from American agents or his own people--that’s his decision. “I cannot allow just anyone to kill me. I must arrange the circumstances myself. As a last act of will--it’s important, because will is the sign of life.”

(Left) The cover from Alfred A. Knopf’s original, 1957 hardcover edition

Finally, even when getting a little preachy Wolfe’s class observations ring true, as when Garmes travels to a Cuban bordello:
... I noticed this walking on eggshells of theirs. Whores in imperialist countries, pampered by robber barons, have learned to negotiate on French heels, but the ones of the exploited colonies, being long oppressed and cut off from the main sources of imperialistic frilly culture, never seem at home on those luxury item spikes, they look like kids on their first pair of stilts.
And now a little about Bernard Wolfe himself. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, relax. Never a crime or thriller writer, Wolfe is better known to readers of jazz histories than to fans of spy fiction. His most famous work, Really the Blues (1946), is the putative autobiography of Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, perhaps the first-ever “white Negro.” Mezz was a lackluster clarinetist whose main function in life was procuring marijuana for jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Really the Blues is loaded with personality, allegedly Mezzrow’s, but it’s really all Wolfe and a must-read for anyone. What gives Wolfe the authority to sound off on espionage and the seamy side of the socialist cause is the year he spent as the amanuensis of Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, during the latter’s 1930s exile in Mexico. That’s the sort of credential that doesn’t show up on many résumés; and while Wolfe later fictionalized Trotsky’s 1940 murder in The Great Prince Died (1959), readers might ache just a little knowing that Wolfe never sat down to compose his memoirs. His life was richly lived, and while much of it found its way into his fiction, a factual accounting of his experiences might have been the most fascinating book of all.


Anonymous said...

This is not quite correct. Wolfe did write a memoir, titled MEMOIRS OF A NOT ALTOGETHER SHY PORNOGRAPHER and published by Doubleday in 1972. However, it was a pretty short book and certainly did not do justice to the whole of his life. The main thing I remember about it is his account of applying for a job as a pornographer and being given a job-related test consisting of supplying dialogue for the speech bubbles of an unfinished Tijuana Bible. He was unable to muster the proper professional attitude.

John Boston

Unknown said...

a great review by mr. nester of one of the very greatest contemporary american writers.