Evergreen Review reviews The Guys Who Spied for China

Dec 21, 2010 - 3:57 am

Evergreen Review‘s New Edition:

The Guys Who Spied for China

By Gordon Basichis

Evergreen Review reviews "The Guys Who Spied for China"

(Minstrel’s Alley, 2010)

Review by Kevin Riordan

This roman a clef puts us face to face with some extraordinarily paranoid individuals, along with the proof that, yes, they have been paying attention.  Rather than going for literary extravagance, Basichis has assembled a dossier with quick, sometimes shopworn phrases, heightening the fact that the events actually happened to him. Where there is a flame, you can be sure there’s a moth nearby, but there is a comfort in clichés; the lack of contrivance is wholly fresh.

The narrator remains something of a cipher, nameless, wise-cracking, ready for action despite no evident training for international political intrigue. He seems to get all the good lines, as when one hard case tells him

“I put myself through school that way. Assassination.”

“Yeah? Me, I worked in a drugstore.” {page 41}

The entire story takes place over the length of the Eighties, but we are never reminded of who’s president or what’s on the radio, nor are we bombarded with period detail. The ready availability of phone booths is the main clue that we are in the past at all, although the technology invoked is both elaborate and quaint. The historical framework is what holds it together, culminating just before the infamous protests in Tiananmen Square.

The most outrageous incidents are related and then retold as they appeared in the press, which is nicely disorienting, as we follow an odd couple of citizens who unravel a huge Chinese spy operation involving satellites, munitions manufacture, survivalists, college professors, even an oddball Bishop. None of the Chinese characters get much exposure, but you don’t want to get too attached to them. Crusty Noah Brown steals the book, evoking William Burroughs as he appeared in the 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy. The book also brings him to mind through its similarity to And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks, in its thinly veiled confessional aspect.

After being introduced to the narrator as someone capable of using deadly force, we are drawn in to a gradually clarifying stew of dubious men and squirrelly subplots. In contrast to the beach read spy novel, the violence and weaponry is not depicted with a lascivious glee, but with genuine frustration and concern. By the storm-drenched climax, there was no place else I would rather have been than on that mission, from the safety of my armchair.

In hindsight perhaps the great irony is that the Chinese didn’t need to spy on us in order to see that what we value the most is cheap pedestrian crap, and we don’t much care if the dignity of labor was involved in its mass manufacture, as long as we can buy it on credit.


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