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Book review: 'The Company We Keep' by Robert and Dayna Baer

Former CIA agents Robert and Dayna Baer deliver a real-life spy memoir that's heavy on prosaic details and curiously lacking thrills.

March 16, 2011|By Richard Schickel | Special to the Los Angeles Times

Spying and flying — who knew these occupations were so closely allied? The saying about pilots holds that their lives consist of thousands of hours of boredom, punctuated by a few moments of sheer, often fatal, terror. Judging from "The Company We Keep," the almost fatally chipper joint memoir by two former CIA spooks, that's pretty much the way it goes when you're snooping around the world's back channels, setting up observation posts and meeting with characters who may or may not have useful information.

Robert Baer is the boisterous character who inspired the figure played by George Clooney in the 2005 movie "Syriana"; Dayna Baer is the woman he met in the 1990s when he gave her a lift into Sarajevo, where she was supposed to set up a listening post to penetrate any secrets the Bosnians may have been keeping from their Croatian enemies.

Eventually the pair shed their spouses, married and embraced a life of yet larger ineffectuality. Or, as Dayna puts it, "Nothing I did in my years in the CIA added or subtracted from the mess out there." This is probably true, though we cannot be entirely certain of that, since the names of people they encountered have been changed and the details of their operations have been blurred, at the agency's insistence, in the interests of secrecy.

The result is a book that is curiously weightless — all windup and virtually no delivery. It offers a few hints about their "trade craft" but nothing that radically alters the impressions you have already gained from the books of John le Carré, as well as a pretty predictable sense of the routine dislocations of a spy's lifestyle — a four-star hotel one night, a slum room with unreliable bathroom facilities the next. The best stuff in the book has nothing to do with espionage per se — a visit by Robert's busybody mother to his post in Tajikistan, for instance, an unfortunate incident with a rabbit that Dayna thinks might make a nice pet to help relieve the boredom of an assignment, and a long flight by Robert to Moscow.

It is perhaps useful to be reminded that ordinary life, with all its minor miseries, has a way of intruding on our more portentous activities, a point that is made with particular poignancy in the book's best section. The Baers eventually leave the CIA, settle in sleepy Silverton, Colo., with Robert doing some consulting work for ABC Television.

It's at this point that they decide to adopt a child — and not just any child. True to their calling, they have to do this the hard way. Specifically, Dayna sees a picture of a "pixie" that one of her correspondents has sent to her via the Internet. She's a Christian baby whose mother died a couple of months after giving birth and whose financially hard-pressed father cannot afford to keep her. The baby also happens to be in Pakistan, which poses just the kind of inconvenience that tends to seal deals for the Baers.

Off Robert goes to Islamabad, where he falls in love with Reela, as the child's called. Soon Dayna joins him and though under local law they cannot formally adopt her, they can apply for a guardianship, enabling them to take her home. That seems simple enough, and all is going well until a judge with Taliban connections rejects their application. He is understandably dubious about the book and video that formed the basis for "Syriana," which is the only respectable credential they have to offer (clearly, their CIA past cannot help their cause).

Something close to authentic suspense — and sympathy — accrues to their tale as they fight their way through the mysteries of an alien legal system for a child they rename Khyber.

The Baers are, I think, fundamentally decent people, the kind of liberal-minded idealists who have been attracted to the CIA from its beginnings. Romantics drawn to the dark glamour of secrecy, exotic locales and the illusion that to be up-and-doing is preferable to sitting and thinking. They are true innocents abroad, who turn even an activity as worthwhile as adoption into a high-risk endeavor. They are likable in their way, but like the agency they served, they are engaged in a dubious battle, one that may not be worth the trouble they cause themselves and others.

Schickel is the author, most recently, of "Conversations With Scorsese."

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