The Prodigal Spy

Joseph Kanon, Author Broadway Books $25 (416p) ISBN 978-0-7679-0142-0
Kanon's second novel, after the very well-received Los Alamos, is somewhat disappointing. He ventures into John le Carre territory, telling the tale of an American State Department official, hounded by the McCarthyites in 1950, who proves them right by abruptly decamping to the Soviet Union in the middle of congressional hearings into his loyalty. The tale of Walter Koltar is told by his son Nick, both at the time of his disappearance, when Nick is a small boy not quite understanding what is happening to his father, and nearly 20 years later, when he receives a mysterious summons to visit his father, now living in Czechoslovakia, just after the illusory ""Prague Spring"" of 1968. Walter wants to return home and thinks he has a trump card that will make that possible. Will Nick help out? As he proved in Los Alamos, Kanon is very adept at rendering the feeling and atmosphere of another time, and his early chapters are powerful evocations of that strange period in American life. He is good, too, on the bizarre quality of life in Prague after the Soviet invasion. The book is thoughtful, often penetrating, though at its considerable length, and with its comparatively small cast--Nick; his abandoned mother; his stepfather, Larry (another top Washington official); and his girlfriend Molly--it sometimes is a bit claustrophobic. The real problems appear in the last 100 pages, where the pace accelerates, J. Edgar Hoover is introduced as a not altogether convincing walk-on, and Nick takes a catastrophic action that seems entirely out of character with how he has been presented previously. It is as if the conventions of the spy thriller are working against Kanon's real strengths, which are in the creation of character as forged by intelligently re-created history. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 11/30/1998
Release date: 12/01/1998
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