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Saturday, May 13th, 2006
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Blow the House Down: A Novel

by Robert Baer

Stranger Than Truth

A review by Chris Bolton

Let's get this out of the way right off: Robert Baer is not -- no matter what the publicity materials or breathless reviews might claim -- the "American John le Carre," nor even the American Ian Fleming.

Baer's writing is too fast and fluid, too juiced on action and not as enamored of Old Boys engaging in long conversations over brandy while puzzling out tangled espionage matters, to compare to the old school spymasters like le Carre or Graham Greene. And the refined, debonair Sir James Bond would likely never consort with an agent so uncouth as Max Waller (though he might appreciate Waller's womanizing ways).

Instead, Baer has found a style all his own: less ponderous than le Carre, more left-leaning (and far less long-winded) than Tom Clancy, and breezier than Robert Littell, whose novel The Company could swallow Baer's debut whole and leave plenty of room for dessert.

What Baer brings to the table is a lot of firsthand experience. A former top CIA operative, Baer talks the talk -- and sounds like he really knows what he's talking about. He has already chronicled his riveting, often frustrating experiences in the bestseller See No Evil, which inspired Stephen Gaghan's recent film Syriana.

In fact, the character played by George Clooney, Bob Barnes, is not so loosely based on Baer -- although we can assume, if Baer is still alive and writing novels and appearing on NPR every time they have a CIA-related story, he hasn't shared the Clooney character's grim fate. Perhaps because of a certain syllabic similarity in their names, or the resemblance in their jobs and dealings with the Agency, it's easy to imagine Max Waller as Baer's fictional counterpart -- which led to me picturing a heavy-set, bearded Clooney in the protagonist role throughout Blow the House Down. There are worse things to imagine.

Blow the House Down is a breakneck novel set in an alternate reality very similar to our own, with slight (but key) differences. The plot suggests a theory behind 9/11 that I, certainly, hadn't heard before. While I have strong doubts as to its veracity, the possibility makes for fascinating, fast-paced storytelling.

Baer gets a certain mileage merely out of opening his first chapter with the date: June 21, 2001. Talk about a ticking clock.

During the next three months, veteran CIA officer Max Waller will lose his job, find himself framed as a traitor, and flee the United States with a mysterious photograph that one agent has already died for. The plot might have something to do with the (still unsolved) 1984 abduction and murder of CIA station chief Bill Buckley in Beirut -- though it also touches on a number of other potential strands of conspiracy, including, eventually, the 9/11 hijackers and Osama bin Laden. I didn't have much difficulty understanding the plot as I read the book, but I'll be damned if I can tie it all up into some kind of halfway intelligible summary for this review.

Suffice it to say, Waller is chased across much of the Middle East and Europe by enemy agents whose affiliations remain shadowy -- in some cases, until the end of the book; in other cases, even now. If you thought the various plot threads of Syriana were headache-inducing, keep a bottle of Excedrin nearby while you read Blow the House Down.

It's nearly impossible to determine where fiction ends and reality begins. Baer litters his novel with so many real names, faces, and incidents -- from the Buckley kidnapping and the conspicuous presence of bin Laden, to the casting of such real-life figures as FBI agent John O'Neill (who was killed in the 9/11 WTC attack) as friend and confidant to Waller. In a Q&A with New Yorker writer Seymour M. Hersh at the end of the book, Baer himself clears the matter up while simultaneously muddying the waters further:

What I really want to do is bring out emotionally that we haven't answered these questions, and until we start telling the truth to each other and to ourselves we're not going to figure out what happened on 9/11 or prevent the next tragedy.

It's tough for me, personally, to swallow Baer's alternative explanation. Then again, prior to the incident, I would have had trouble believing 9/11 could happen in the first place. Is Baer's take any more incredible than the notion of al Qaeda agents living in the U.S. and attending flight school right under the FBI's noses?

The narrative unfolds with deceptive simplicity. Baer doesn't linger on descriptions or spend much time honing his prose to a polished sheen -- and while his tradecraft seems authentic (I'll have to take his word on the dozens of great tidbits littered throughout), he isn't above picking his antagonist out of Central Casting. Max Waller's character could have used a bit more complexity, as well. The novel's headlong thrust doesn't allow much room for le Carre-style introspection -- though I'm not convinced that would be entirely appropriate for a CIA agent of Waller's caliber, anyway -- and there's a bit of bedplay involving Waller and a much younger woman who calls him "Uncle Max" that's, well, a little creepy.

These aren't quibbles, necessarily, or complaints. The fact is, I have difficulty wading through many of le Carre's novels, or those of his true American counterpart, Robert Littell. I get the feeling Robert Baer doesn't have much patience for their writing, himself; he keeps his novel spinning briskly along even as the story elements wind up in a dizzying tangle. It's as though someone had taken the complexity of Syriana and filtered it through a Mission: Impossible-style action thriller.

Blow the House Down is fast and entertaining and raises intriguing possibilities. Max Waller's weary skepticism makes him an enjoyable guide through the tangle of the global intelligence community, with its back-slapping and double-dealings and triple-crosses and constantly reconfigured allegiances. By the end, when the dreaded date September 11th hurtles toward us like a runaway airliner, I found myself riveted and, ultimately, rewarded -- even if I'm still not sure things happened the way Baer imagines they might have.

The cliché is that truth is stranger than fiction. With Blow the House Down, it's hard to know what's fiction and what might be truth... but it's all equally strange.

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