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An Ordinary Spyby Joseph Weisberg
Synopses & Reviews
A former CIA case officer's novel about two embattled spies who go to extraordinary lengths to keep their informants out of harm's way, published as vetted by the agency itself.
Mark Ruttenberg may not be fit for the CIA. Early in his tenure with the agency, he learns about a former operative, Bobby Goldstein, and becomes curious about the case that led to his termination. Before he can get to the bottom of what happened, however, he's shipped off to [REDACTED], where he hobnobs with foreign diplomats and informants, who have access to [REDACTED] information and contacts like the powerful General [REDACTED], in the hopes of recruiting them as agents. But, when he falls for the wrong woman, he's quickly sent back to REDACTED], with nothing to show for his secretive work but a mysterious postcard with an unknown address on it. Who sent the postcard, and where is it supposed to lead him? Could this all be an ops test, with Mark's future hanging in the balance? Soon, he'll have to decide if righting an old wrong is worth taking a terrible and very personal risk. Published with redacted material throughout the novel, An Ordinary Spy is a riveting and dramatic portrait of modern espionage, filled with suspense, intrigue, and betrayal.
"Mimicking many nonfiction books about the CIA, Weisberg, a former CIA officer, has included a blizzard of redacted (blacked out) words and sentences in his second novel (after 10th Grade), as if the agency's publications review board had worked the manuscript over with a heavy hand. Did they? Or is it just a clever ploy for verisimilitude? Mark Ruttenberg, a newly minted agent, is on his first foreign assignment trying to persuade citizens of an unknown country (the location has been redacted) to spy for American interests. He's doing well until he starts sleeping with one of his contacts and his superiors eventually fire him. Back in America, Ruttenberg meets another cashiered spy, Bobby Goldstein, and the two men share their experiences. Ruttenberg and Goldstein may be pretty ordinary spies, as the title suggests, but their stories compel, thanks to the author's deft prose and insider expertise. Given the quantity of blacked-out material, some readers may be more annoyed than intrigued as they puzzle over the missing information." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Many spy novels tend toward the spectacular. Both Charles McCarry and Robert Littell wrote novels purporting to explain the assassination of President Kennedy. Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan saved Prince Charles and Princess Di from IRA terrorists, and Frederick Forsyth's 'The Day of the Jackal' imagined a plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Explosions, kidnappings, assassinations, nuclear secrets, dirty... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) bombs, the fate of nations — these are the stuff of spy fiction in this, our Age of Terror. Ex-CIA case officer Joseph Weisberg's 'An Ordinary Spy' is the opposite of all that. Weisberg, who is in his early 40s, has said that he set out to produce the most realistic spy novel ever written. As he tells it, CIA agents abroad spend much of their time in pointless make-work projects that do more harm than good, except insofar as the agents may win promotions and better postings if they impress their bosses back in Langley. Whether this is a realistic portrait of the CIA, or sour grapes from an ex-employee, is for each reader to decide. It's a fact that Weisberg never served abroad; he formed his opinions by reading the reports that agents in the field sent back to headquarters. The novel is divided into two parts. The first tells of the arrival of a young agent, Mark Ruttenberg, in an unnamed Third World country, where he is supposed to recruit individuals who will sell secrets to the CIA. At the outset, we learn a lot about the paperwork and logistics an agent must deal with — packing, shipping the car over — but finally Ruttenberg starts cruising embassy parties. He meets a woman named Daisy who says she's a secretary to a senior military official in her nation's embassy. Ruttenberg starts taking Daisy to lunch. Ostensibly, he's seeking friendship, in reality he's seeking secrets, and what he gets is a romp in Daisy's bed. Has our man been compromised? Might Daisy be trying to entrap him? Should he confess to his bosses? As it turns out, his fling with Daisy costs him his job, not so much because he slept with her but because he did so without proper authorization. Mark returns to the United States and becomes a high school teacher, as Weisberg himself is now. Back in the States, Mark meets another ex-CIA officer, Bobby Goldstein, who is haunted by his own experiences in the same country. He recruited an agent, but things went wrong and a terrible punishment was inflicted on the man. Another part of Bobby's story concerns his houseboy. Bobby cared about the boy and taught him to read, but he also used him as a source of information. His bosses didn't approve of 11-year-old spies, and Bobby, too, was sent packing. He's living in New England, burdened by guilt for the pain he caused those he seduced into serving the CIA. Weisberg gives one of his two ex-agents a happy ending in his private life, but both stories end in professional disillusionment for once idealistic men. He portrays a CIA that is largely indifferent to the harm it does to those it lures into its games — 'He knew the risks' is the standard response to disaster. Weisberg also shows agents operating in a more or less constant state of confusion. An agent meets a potential spy but is never quite sure if he's a possible source of priceless data, a double agent or just a fellow looking for a free lunch. He doesn't know if the woman who slept with him did so because he's irresistible or because that's her job. Moreover, as Weisberg tells it, an agent never knows if his own bosses can be trusted — or, in the alternative, fooled. Will they tap your phone and have you followed? Even after you've left the agency? Paranoia goes with the territory. In an unwise stab at realism, Weisberg has blacked out ('redacted' in governmentese) words, paragraphs and even entire pages of his novel to suggest how the CIA would censor an ex-agent's book. Most of the deletions make sense — names of people, countries, streets and the like — but the hundreds of blacked-out passages become annoying to the reader, except now and then when they're funny. For example, in a restaurant, 'Plates clattered, groups of men played (blacked out), there were even the noises of (blacked out) that I hoped weren't coming from the kitchen.' One might reflect on just what those horrid sounds were that the agent hopes aren't coming from the kitchen. Screaming children? Weisberg's book is largely somber, but he has fun occasionally. When one of his case officers files fanciful reports to excite the wise men in Langley, his novel recalls Graham Greene's comic 'Our Man in Havana.' All in all, 'An Ordinary Spy' is an odd, well-written and interesting novel, a low-key corrective to all the razzle-dazzle spy tales we've read. Probably the CIA isn't quite as hopeless as Weisberg suggests, but his account is a useful reminder that the agency is, at bottom, a bureaucracy with as much potential for absurdity as any other." Reviewed by Patrick Anderson, whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers(at symbol)aol.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[T]he narrative turns out to be quite gripping....[A] novel that resembles the best of new American spy fiction, though tilted somewhat at an angle." Chicago Tribune
"The book is fiction packaged as mock memoir." New York Times
"[A] stab at verisimilitude, large chunks of the novel's text are blacked out, a technique that eventually becomes an irritating stylistic tic on the part of Weisberg....More slack than taut." Kirkus Reviews
"For those willing to contemplate the anti-Bond view of spying, this is definitely a book to read." Booklist
"In two words: A masterpiece. An intelligent spy thriller written in a deft, dry style that reveals a landscape both darkly funny and unsettling. Joe Weisberg is one of our most accomplished and generous writers." Gary Shteyngart
"It's tempting to say that An Ordinary Spy is extraordinary, but I'm afraid that doesn't begin to do this novel justice. In a world where everyone is always promising to reinvent genres and subgenres, Joseph Weisberg hijacks the espionage thriller and finds the grave beauty in the quotidian — and dares to write about one of the most dangerous topics of all, the search for a meaningful yet moral life." New York Times bestselling author Laura Lippman
"I have never read an espionage novel with quite the sense of authenticity Joe Weisberg achieves in An Ordinary Spy, He has crafted not only an engrossing and highly-original work, but a fascinating journey into a world most of us will never encounter. Chances are you'll never think about the CIA in quite the same way again." Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha
"Most so-called spy fiction out there today is so far from reality that we pros don't read it. Joe Weisberg is a notable exception. He nails it. An Ordinary Spy captures perfectly the spy world I lived in my whole career, how we talk, how we think, and how we operate. Joe gets it better than Clancy and is on a par with McCarry. His book is the best spy story I've read in years." James M. Olson, former chief of CIA counterintelligence and the author of Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying
""A great read. Stunningly realistic." Ted Price, former Deputy Director for Operations, CIA
“This book is surely the best portrait of the working C.I.A. we have had in many years.” —New York Times Book Review
The most riveting and inventive spy novel to come along in years, published as vetted by the CIA itself, An Ordinary Spy is a dramatic portrait of modern espionage, filled with suspense, intrigue, and betrayal.
About the Author
Joseph Weisberg is the author of the critically acclaimed 10th Grade, which was a 2002 New York Times Notable Book. A former CIA officer, he grew up in Chicago and currently lives in New York City.
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