Thursday, April 27, 2006

Charles McCarry Paints A Powerful Picture: A Review Of “The Last Supper”

Like the Da Vinci masterpiece from which this book borrows its name, “The Last Supper” contains a fascinating tableau of characters all arrayed around a central hero who comes back from the dead. Paul Christopher represents the second generation of his family to work for The Outfit in a variety of espionage and counterespionage roles. The story revolves around his efforts to uncover the truth behind the death of his father and the disappearance of his mother into the hands of the Nazis.

McCarry is an artist with words, and he paints a picture that is as full of mystery and intrigue as is the enigmatic smile of La Gioconda. He paints with verbal brushstrokes and a palette that employ various hues of terror, tragedy, turmoil, tyranny, subterranean tunneling and multi-layered treachery. The action of the narrative takes us through Nazi Germany, Vienna, Viet Nam, China, the Berkshires and the halls of power in Washington, D.C.

While I always enjoy McCarry’s plots, what causes me to seek out more and more of his titles to read and enjoy is his artful use of language. In this regard, he is the equal of John Le Carre, whose artistry I have long admired. Here are just a few nuggets:

’Do you know about tapestries?' Lori asked, continuing to speak English. She did so with a slight Scottish intonation; Hubbard supposed that she had learned the language form a nanny. Perhaps the nanny had come form Edinburgh. He imagined the poor woman, happy enough with the Buechelers, caring for this lovely child, then caught in Germany by the war: Hubbard often reconstructed whole biographies from the single toe bone of such fossil hints; he was a writer.” (Page 18)

As the action of the book moves to Viet Nam, McCarry’s shares these observations and insights:

“At the edge of the village, lying in an uncovered grave, were the bodies of a dozen men and women; their right hands and their heads had been cut off. Among them was a Catholic priest, a Frenchman who had had a bald head and a peevish sharp face; even in death he seemed sure of his opinions.” (Page 179)

The description of Christopher’s release from prison after ten year’s of incarceration in China is full of captivating detail and metaphoric beauty and poignancy:

“The pilot started the engines and with a deafening stutter the machine rose into the air. Frightened by the noise, birds poured out of the eaves of the monastery, silvery in the morning sunlight like water spilling over a stone. Below him, his ditch, which had seemed so long and deep to him for so many years, grew smaller and thinner and then seemed to close like the lips of a healed cut.” (Page 308)

Finally, McCarry, in full stride as a writer, captures the essence of Christopher’s young love interest, Stephanie, as he settles into his life after prison:

“Stephanie ran with full concentration, striding over the brick sidewalks of Georgetown with her head thrown back and her dark ponytail bouncing. The back of her shirt was soaked with sweat and her legs shone with perspiration. She was not a natural athlete, but it was clear that she had studied the technique of running as she might have studied a foreign language. She earnestly applied the grammar and vocabulary of the sport, wearing the proper equipment, doing stretching exercises before she set out, placing her feet in just the right way, carrying her head and arms correctly, breathing deeply. She didn’t have the accent quite right. It was a charming weakness. She reminded Christopher of the earnest hikers in the forests of Rugen. She reminded him constantly of herself as a child. There was something endearing about her solemnity.” (Page 339)

That is good writing! Jog to the nearest bookstore (or keyboard) and get a copy of “The Last Supper” or any of McCarry’s other offerings.


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