Three minutes to Doomsday, by Joe Navarro***

threeminutestodoomsday“Nothing’s ever over till the fat lady sings.”

Trite? Yes. Abrasive? Absolutely!  Sexist? All the damn time. Profane? Seriously profane, and not in a way that some of us might find amusing. And yet, this memoir has a strangely fascinating aspect as well.  It combines two stories, the primary one an espionage case in which the author plays the primary role, and a secondary one, the implosion of the author’s personality and marriage. It’s not fun reading, but after a certain point, there’s no turning away from it either. Thanks go to Net Galley and Scribner for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

Navarro is a hot-shot young FBI agent in 1988, and it is while conducting what is expected to be a fairly routine interview that he notes a “tell” from former US soldier Rod Ramsey. It becomes the basis of an espionage case that goes much deeper than anyone anticipated. Navarro uses his expertise in nonverbal communication to tell what Ramsey is feeling during the various phases of his interviews, and he also uses it to control and manipulate Ramsey into cooperating with the investigation. Ramsey is the one soul on this planet with fewer friends than Navarro, and so Navarro spends years making Ramsey believe that he himself is that friend, practically family. He does it so he can have this kid busted and send him away for a really long time.

Navarro knows a lot about reading and controlling others nonverbally, but he doesn’t know a thing about building a family life or about how to make friends, and it’s clear he knows this, yet he can’t help himself. He tells us that an agent he wants to assist him tells a supervisor that she would prefer to work with someone else, and specifically, with anyone, anyone, anyone else but him. A number of other people echo this, and yet his personality continues on its hell-bent-for-leather downhill trajectory.

While he continues his self-aggrandizement with a hearty side-serving of brazen braggadocio, Navarro recounts again and again how much he hates the office staff at work, little people that are getting in his way by attempting to do their jobs. Clearly they just don’t understand how very important he is, but that’s okay, because he is letting the world know now.  Regarding the office manager that dares remind him of small requirements like changing the oil in his official vehicle, he uses a tired aphorism:

“Don’t try to teach a pig to sing. It annoys the pig and it wastes your time.”

He lets us know that he swore at, patronized, and berated her constantly, and lest we take his admissions as a sign of penitence, he also lets us know that he hates her still. He has changed her name for obvious legal reasons, but he hasn’t changed his obnoxious attitude or gained a speck of humility.

Add to this the fact that, though this case is terrific book material, the guy isn’t much of a writer. Clichés abound, and very basic principles of narrative writing are either never learned or disregarded. He starts chapters with lists, apparently too busy and important to transform these into paragraphs. I’m not all that sure he ever edited his work (because he might have noticed his overuse of parenthesis) and I’m not sure he permitted anyone else to do so either (because surely they would have come to his rescue).

Still, it’s an interesting story. Whereas someone else could no doubt do a finer job of writing this thing, it’s undeniably compelling. I recommend this memoir to those that enjoy espionage thrillers and true crime stories, but don’t give up the full sticker price. Read it for free or cheap, and save your serious dollars for serious writers.

Fidelity, by Jan Fedarcyk***-****

fidelityRetired FBI agent Jan Fedarcyk makes her debut with this intense spy novel, and it is bound to keep the reader guessing and turning pages deep into the night. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received for review purposes. I rate this story with 3.5 stars and round it upward.

The selling point for the new reader of what is destined to become the Kay Malloy series, is that the author has spent 25 years in the FBI and knows what she’s talking about. Though she reminds the reader that a lot of the FBI agent’s job is done at a desk sifting through endless forms to fill out and reports to write and not much of what we see on TV, we also know that she can spot an implausible situation a mile away and not go there or do that.

So the initial question that came to me was whether someone that’s worked for the Feds for a quarter century still has enough imagination left to write interesting fiction, and now I can tell you straight up that Fedarcyk does, and she can, and she did. I like the level of complexity, which is literate without being impossible to follow. The reader will want to give her story full attention; nobody can watch television and read this book during the ads. It’s well paced and the suspense is built in a masterful manner.

Characterization comes up a little short, and I can imagine that this will be her key focus in writing future books in the series. Kay is so darn perfect, and I never feel I know her deeply, despite the discussion of her past and how she is motivated by it. We see her tempted to use her position for a very small, somewhat justifiable personal reason briefly, but she is nonetheless something of a cardboard hero all the way through. Likewise, the Russian spies are big, blocky bad guys, thugs that drink Vodka. The spy novel tradition has been honored, but I would like to see more layers to these characters as we move forward. The ending, while it surprises me to some extent, is not one that the reader had a reasonable chance of guessing, but to some extent that’s true of a lot of espionage thrillers.  What might be really cool would be to see an espionage version of Kay’s own Moriarty come into play.

As is always the case for me when I read espionage thrillers, police procedurals, and other novels that involve heroic cops, I have to construct a mental barricade between what I see in real life and what I am willing to believe when I read fiction. One of Fedarcyk’s characters snorts in derision about the time when people were willing to die for Marxism, and I have news: some of us still would. But for a fun ride, I am delighted to suspend reality and buy the premise until the book is done.

One area where I struggled—and to be honest, I don’t know whether anyone else will or not—was with two characters, first Luis, whose last name isn’t used very much, and then Torres, whose first name doesn’t get used much either. This reviewer has taught more than one student named Luis Torres, so this may factor into my confusion about 75% of the way through the story when I realize that these have to be two separate people, but for awhile I am convinced that Uncle Luis Torres has mentored her into the field, and so when the story arc is near its peak, I have to go back and reread some of the novel to be certain I knew who is who. Luis is the uncle; Torres is the agent and mentor; they’re two separate guys.

All told, this is a promising start to what is sure to be an engaging series. The world needs to see more strong women in fiction, and so I welcome Kay Malloy and look forward to seeing future installments. A fine debut, and it’s for sale now.

Native Speaker, by Chang-Rae Lee *****

native speakerNative Speaker has been praised by the most prestigious periodicals, from New York to London to Los Angeles, and yet, though it has won a number of awards, I had not heard of it until I found it in a special award-winners area of Powell’s City of Books, when I made my annual pilgrimage to my old hometown and my old bookstore this summer. Perhaps I first found him there because he teaches at the U of Oregon; or perhaps it is because Powell’s is the only brick-and-mortar bookstore I frequent anymore. At any rate, this book was a real find.
Our protagonist is Henry Park, who works as a spy of sorts for a private firm:
“Our clients were multinational corporations, bureaus of foreign governments, individuals of resource and connection.”
Henry is having problems with his work. He is supposed to insinuate himself into the lives of individuals who may be working against the interests of one client or another, find out all he can about them, develop a psychological profile. To do this, he has to pretend to become emotionally attached to them, and in some cases make them dependent upon him; then he files his final report on them and disappears from their lives.
His most recent subject was a psychologist named Luzan. He saw Luzan regularly, began telling him things he had never told anyone. What with his problematic relationship with his father, now deceased, and the accidental death of his beloved son, his only child, and his marital problems…the man actually needs a psychologist, and in the end the firm has to muscle their way into the shrink’s office and physically remove Henry from his subject in order to break the connection.
Now they have thrown him a really easy job to get him back into shape. He is supposed to cover and report on a politician, John Kwang. There is the Korean connection, which makes him a shoo-in; he begins by posing as a freelance journalist, but becomes more and more involved as a member of the campaign staff. His reports become scantier and fewer as he adopts Kwang as the father he never really had.
Beautifully interwoven throughout Lee’s narrative are the cultural understandings between those of Korean ancestry; the conflicts that arise between first and second generations in the US; the racist assumptions, stereotypes, and miscommunications between Koreans and Caucasians, whom he pointedly refers to as “Americans”. Black people are just Black, but white folks are “Americans”. Park is still in love with his “American” wife, but she recently figured out what he does for a living, and she isn’t sure she can live with it. His plan is to finish this assignment, he tells her, and then he’ll get out, go do something else.
There is such grace and care in Lee’s story-telling, both in what is said, and in what is not. I’ve never read anything like it. And one thing I really appreciate is that without overtly saying so, he lets us know that there is no such thing as an Asian-American. A certain skin tone, a fold at the outside of the eyelid, these are superficial things that don’t speak to culture, to language, to expectations. I also really appreciated the way he dealt with the hostility between Korean small shop owners and their African-American neighbors and customers, and the historical reality to which he deftly traces back, without ever stepping away from the central storyline.
Native Speaker is unlike anything else I have ever read. It doesn’t even have a genre, unless we drop it into the “Asian studies” category that his story demonstrates is artificial in any case. It’s a thoughtful, deep story, yet it is not hyperliterate or particularly lengthy. It’s there for anyone who will take the time to read it. A worthy and thought-provoking journey.