You see it everywhere, the tyranny of the actual. A kudzu of true rime and true confession and live dying chokes the airwaves. Topicality poisons the well of the New Yorker's humor. Terrorists and messiahs feed us bite-sized apocalypses. Post-modernism chases David Letterman. As long as something is "based on a true story," Americans will buy it. Who needs a made-up story? Why settle for fiction when the facts are available?
To the beleaguered life of the imagination, support now comes from the old warrior John le Carre. It's possible to overlook le Carre. His mass-market dust jackets have always camouflaged his literary stature, and in recent years it's seemed as if he finally might be slowing down. "The Secret Pilgrim" (1991) read almost like leftovers. The storytelling was still sharp, but the book was basically a memoir, a slow-motion enactment of a too-familiar archetype: Unfocused protagonist experiences the spy trade's moral ambiguities and leans to take his own measure.
"The Secret Pilgrim" had, however, an unsettling coda, in which Ned the Cold War spy paid a visit to Sir Anthony Bradshaw, a crooked arms dealer whom the Thatcher government had nurtured for strategic reasons. The striking thing about Bradshaw was the author's naked hatred of him; there was no ambiguity to his hideousness. Ned seemed to be speaking for le Carre, the quintessential Cold War pathologist, when he confessed to feeling "as if (his) whole life had been fought against the wrong enemy . . . as if Bradshaw had personally stolen the fruits of (his) victory."
In "The Night Manager," spies like Ned are in retirement or in limbo. But le Carre himself, remarkably, has been reborn a generation younger and a generation angrier. Few spirits seem to have been more liberated than his by the Cold War's thawing. The torrent of voices, sociology, inside dope, emotion, politics and sheer inspired prose-writing in the new novel suggests a river which, having silted up a familiar delta, is suddenly routing out new channels.
The good guys in "The Night Manager" work for the U.S. Justice Department and DEA and their British counterparts. They are less interested in gathering intelligence than in capturing and punishing thugs. For them, the Cold War "espiocracy," as le Carre might call it--MI5 and the CIA--"meant all things bad. . . . It meant turning a blind eye to some of the biggest crooks in the hemisphere for the sake of nebulous advantages elsewhere. It meant operations inexplicably abandoned in midstream and orders countermanded on high. It meant callow Yale fantasists in button-down shirts who believed they could outwit the worst cut-throats in Latin America."
Le Carre's own anger radiates through passages like these. Scandals like the "Bank of Crooks and Cousins Incorporated" (as he here calls BCCI) seem to have decisively turned his stomach. Of the Allied bombing of Baghdad he writes: "Nobody talks about the casualties. From that height there aren't any." Of the middlemen who got rich while we played patty cakes with Manuel Noriega and Adnan Khashoggi: "Disenchanted veterans? Settling a grudge with Uncle Sam? Then get yourselves a couple of disenchanted faces . . . and stop looking as if you ride first-class and charge the company for your time."
At the center of "The Night Manager" is Dicky Roper, a wealthy, well-born British national who peddles weapons out of the Bahamas. Roper cheats on his young mistress, can't bear to read a book, enjoys fond memories of Idi Amin and doesn't care who buys his weapons as long as he profits by it. As the novel opens, he is putting together a "deal to end all deals."
Attempting to foil Roper is the novel's main character and eponymous hotel night manager, a handsome, inscrutable young man named Jonathan Pine. Le Carre is at his cunning best in detailing Jonathan's transformation from a hotel-management professional into an internationally wanted criminal washing up in northern Quebec, trying to scrounge a bogus passport, and, soon enough, crossing paths with Roper.
Increasingly, however, Jonathan's story is overshadowed by another story, the story of a bureaucratic turf war. Here, too, the le Carre moral fog has lifted. Good men are shafted by rotten ones in broad daylight, with no regrets. It's a sickening spectacle, more viscerally terrible than anything le Carre has done before; and he is too exacting a realist to let justice triumph, even mildly, in the end.