"The Spike" is named after a nail-like implement on which editors impale unwanted stories. The gravity of this spy novel's faults invites the cheap-shot comment that spiking is what the publishers should have done with it.
But the timeless and relentless sincerity of its theme -- Soviet intelligence ethics versus United States intelligence ethics -- utlimately recommends "The Spike" even if it means letting better books wait for paperback, or library availability.
Before you plunk down your $12.95, however, there are some caveat emptors. Remember those old-time society pages where writers tried to cram 12 inches of names into an inflexible eight inches of space? Paragraph after paragraph began, "Also seen in animated conversation were Mrs. Ogleton Teacosy, Baron and Baroness Gunther hin and zu Kluck, Marc Brute, the novelist . . ."
Well, "The Spike" does the same thing, though with name changes and sufficient transmogrification to avoid libel. Despite the disguises, clearly discernible (in animated conversation) are William Colby, James Angleton and Philip Agee, all late of the CIA; former New Yorker Timesmen David Halberstam and Seymour Hersh, Ham Jordan and Zbigniew Brzezinski of the White House, Patty Hearst, former senator William Fulbright . . .
Also recognizable under fake names are The Washington Post, The New York Times, and altered in an astounding way, the Institute for Policy Studies. When the authors run out of fake names, they trot on in propria persona Barbara Walters, Norman Mailer, economist Alan Greenspan, and the Palm, Nathan's, Elaine's, Regine's . . .
The horrible consequence of all this is that the characters in "The Spike" generally seem like regurgitated news clippings (except for the pseudo-Angleton whose darkly fascinating personality -- see the better written "Orchids for Mother" -- apparently is impossible to fictionalize poorly.)
Along with the profligate roman-a-cleffing, the book is subverted by four inane love stories each well below the Me-Tarzan-You-Jane level. These make clear why author Arnaud de Borchgrave writes for Newsweek's political sections, not his magazine's life-style departments, which deal with boy-girl things.
Finally, the plot has serious credibility problems. The hero, a button-down prize-winning reporter, is told on the record by the former chief CIA counterspy about a Soviet mole in the American power elite, right down to name and mode of operation. The reporter is unable to blow him out of the water for more than four years. Generally it takes one good FBI source and two weeks.
And spies and journalists blab secrets to each other like members of a psychiatric counseling group. They chatter of sources, clandestine agents, organizational plans . . . would that it were so easy!
After such failings, to crib and paraphrase, what forgiveness? Why not spike "The Spike" in favor of the four professionally crafted espionage novels on the best-seller list?
For this reason alone: sometimes clumsily, sometimes with finesse and steely humor, De Borchgrave and co-author Robert Moss tell us something compellingly that we should start believing. It amounts to this:
"The United States is a good country, and as countries go a moral one. We are different from communist and fascist countries." It is not a popular thesis. We are too much enamored with great-power self-flagellation.
The medium for this message is the youthful hero, an Everyliberal who believes the CIA, Pentagon and most of the rest of the government are unrelievedly bad, the Viet Cong all idealists forced to do nasty things, the Soviets ignorable.
The adulation of the Left turns him into a journalistic lotus eater. But when the lotuses turn bitter and he finds some liberal Big Bellies are traitors, he is driven from the news business.
"The spike" goes at this kind of unreported hypocrisy with welcome and inquisitorial vehemence: some Soviet journalists are shown as KGB killers; Marxist terrorist druggings make the CIA brand look like junior high chipping; the press is shown as wimpish about Cuban, Soviet and other communist spying, but hawkish and self-congratulatory about exposing the CIA and FBI.
It might have been better for the authors to have ended the book on such honorable acidity. But that is not the nature of morality tales. After some spiffy chase scenes in Hamburg, Switzerland, Saigon and the Paris suburbs, the bad guys are dead or demoted, the good guys are holstering their smoking Walthers.
The hero is wed to the girl next door, an equally fervent flag-flyer; his best man, and even as parable this was a little tough to swallow, is the worst of the KGB murderers, now also newborn to apple pie and the Stars and stripes.