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Week Nine: American Spy

Four books down, and two to go until our end-of-summer finale, where you’ll decide which of our Camp ToB reads goes to the 2020 Tournament of Books. This week, we begin our final matchup of the summer with the first half of American Spy.

Welcome to Camp ToB 2019, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books! All summer long, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2019—two books per month, two weeks per book—that you chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel, then meet here on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress through each book. At the end of each month you decide which of the two books we just read advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you make the ultimate call on which of our three finalists wins an automatic berth in the 2020 Tournament of Books.

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Andrew Womack: Welcome to August at Camp ToB! So far this summer, we’ve read Bowlaway, Daisy Jones & the Six, Lost Children Archive, and Trust Exercise, with Daisy Jones & the Six and Lost Children Archive winning their respective months. This month we’ll read American Spy and Black Leopard, Red Wolf, one of which you’ll choose to send to our end-of-summer finale, where you’ll vote one final time to decide which of our summer finalists earns a spot in the 2020 Tournament of Books.

Now, on to American Spy, whose characters are embroiled in the espionage activities of 1980s Cold War America. Written by our protagonist, Marie Mitchell, as a letter to be read at a future date by her two young sons, Tommy and William, the book begins with an attempt on Mitchell’s life at the family’s home in Connecticut—she kills her assailant, and the three soon leave for Martinique to stay with Marie’s mother, Agate. From there, we learn about Marie’s work as an FBI agent during the 1980s, and about her sister, Helene, who had an early interest in espionage and sparked Marie’s choice to pursue a career in intelligence—but who died in the late 1970s, before she could reach her goal of becoming a spy. The first half of the book concludes as Marie begins working with the CIA in an operation involving Burkina Faso’s inspiring (and real-life) revolutionary leader, Thomas Sankara—who, we find out, is the father of Marie’s children.

Our Activity Leader this time around is David Brunelle. David, please tell us about yourself.

David Brunelle: Hi, Andrew, and thanks for having me. I live in Seattle, where my official title at the moment is Medical Director for Pediatric Hospice, but, sadly, that position is being eliminated. Fortunately I will be returning to work I have loved in the past, joining colleagues who care for kids in the Emergency Department.

Here are a few biographical connections to this week’s book: With a Quebecois heritage, I also spent my childhood hearing French and English spoken. Like Tommy and William, I had a mémé [French for grandmother —ed.]. And my dad, who was on active duty with the Coast Guard throughout the 1960s, was stationed in Miami during the Cuban Missile Crisis, so the shadow of the Cold War loomed large for our family.

Andrew: Something I’m enjoying so far in American Spy is the writing style. Very precise and descriptive—in fact, a lot like how I would hope an FBI agent’s personal account might read. What do you think so far?

David: This is very assured, high-quality writing and I’m also enjoying the ride. I’ve been less enamored of a few other debut novels lately, so it’s a pleasure to find this one. There is a depth and complexity to the story that make the proceedings compelling, even during Marie’s more introspective moments. Characters are given emotional ranges that I find credible, and flaws which help humanize even those with grander, bolder personalities. And the book is balancing both a confessional tone and a gradual revelation of secret information in a way that is working for me.

What has been less convincing is the framing device of the journal itself. First of all, we know that this is a handwritten document. The 141 published pages under discussion today would equate to, what, several hundred in longhand? And then there are the details Marie has included that make for an atmospheric novel but a rather unrealistic letter to the boys:

The muscles in my shoulders loosened and relief washed over me.

I heard the whoosh of tires on asphalt—a car passing on the Boston Post Road, which was hidden just behind the tangle of woods at the back of our small house.

And, especially:

I’m sorry I had to step away for a moment.

I think we can assume that she’s been stepping away from penning this exhaustive account quite often already.

Andrew: I can see that. I do like how the journaling angle adds an extra level of suspense to everything that’s going on. Even if it’s uneven at points, the journal framing keeps our present-day characters’ peril at the forefront.

So this is a book that’s mixing a few styles together. It’s epistolary. But it’s also historical fiction, with this view into Cold War American espionage. How are you feeling about that side of American Spy so far?

David: When a writer ventures into historical fiction, I want to know that they have done their homework. Research that period, seek out primary sources, double-check the facts. Twain’s excellent advice was not “Write what you think you probably know,” right? I’m not saying I expect an author to be inviolable or a subject matter expert, but there’s a reason we don’t call the genre fictional history. I also prefer it when historical details are woven into the narrative with some subtlety rather than draped like bunting across a façade.

Honestly? I think American Spy is doing a great job in this regard. There are several colorful details incorporated rather organically: Ralph Nader’s activism around automobile safety, the work of Malcolm X within the Nation of Islam, and the price-fixing of AZT by Burroughs-Wellcome. These subjects are generally alluded to rather than spotlighted, and that’s exactly right for Marie’s voice. She sounds authentic without being didactic.

I’m generally on the lookout for anachronisms but haven’t spotted any thus far. (Commentariat: Begin the attack!) Helene’s Honda Civic (formerly the N600) was sold in America in the early ’70s. Books on tape were available years before the Walkman. And I definitely remember the “Spaldeen.”


American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

It’s 1986, the heart of the Cold War, and Marie Mitchell is an intelligence officer with the FBI. She’s brilliant, but she’s also a young black woman working in an old boys’ club. So when she’s given the opportunity to join a shadowy task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the charismatic revolutionary president of Burkina Faso whose Communist ideology has made him a target for American intervention, she says yes. Yes, even though she secretly admires the work Sankara is doing for his country. Yes, even though she is still grieving the mysterious death of her sister, whose example led Marie to this career path in the first place. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)

Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.


Andrew: Oh wow, I am so out of my league on this detailed read. Am I so trusting? Spies would have no trouble getting by me.

Continuing on the topic of historical fiction, though, we have the presence of Burkina Faso’s Sankara, who makes a significant appearance at the end of the first half of the book, and is, as we know now, the father of Marie’s children. And I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say this—since it happened in real life—but Sankara is going to be assassinated. Keeping that in mind, we have some tension going into the second half.

David: We certainly do. And knowing what lies ahead for “Africa’s Che Guevara”—as well as Blaise Campaoré and others—hasn’t lessened that tension for me, because this is Marie’s story and she’s withheld plenty to this point. Things are becoming more complicated, and there is a growing sense of impending danger for several of the protagonists.

Something else I want to make note of is the book’s epigraph, a quotation from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which I think provides a key to some deeper meaning in this novel. There is resonance with Ellison’s concept that “invisibility” is not a physical condition but a metaphorical one; the result of an individual’s not being “seen,” understood, accepted by others. Marie struggles with this throughout her life. She has spent most of it trying to achieve personal visibility (with regard to her dad, mom, sister, boyfriend, and coworkers), yet has chosen a career that requires just the opposite. That fascinates me. It’s quite the high-wire act. And now she’s setting down the truth of her own history so that she will be visible to her sons one day.

I also think there are “Easter Eggs” in our story that hearken back to Ellison’s. One is Robbie’s “liberating” some electricity by patching into the system from the building next door, which is mirrored exactly when Ellison’s narrator taps into the grid of the Monopolated Light & Power Company. The scene where Robbie sends Marie’s dad a badger paw but has his gift taken for a hostile act rather than a thoughtful gesture is also reminiscent of the earlier work.

Andrew: A thought that kept running through my head was that this might be an example of a truly realistic spy novel—or rather, what I imagine to be a realistic depiction of a spy’s often boring life and work—that is, a lot of procedural negotiations and office work. Not too much of the paragliding or assassinating. What are your thoughts there?

David: We’re given Helene’s own feelings on this early on. “She said Ian Fleming was no match for John Le Carré, whose spy novels were advertised as the real thing.”

Andrew: Yes, loved that line!

David: Of course you’re implying that the disparity is much more stark than that and I wholeheartedly agree. It seems a foregone conclusion that those most effective at espionage are least likely to draw notice; that intelligence gathering is slow, methodical, tedious work.

There does seem to be an interesting subtext forming around the nature of espionage as viewed by Marie. She does not value all roles within the intelligence-gathering community equally. I’ve been copying down the various descriptions she’s given of what it means to be a “spy” and they are either drily categorical or downright critical but never laudatory:

a traitor; a temporary contractor; a counterintelligence operative; a snitch; passing for white; manipulative and exploitative; cold and calculated; and an “agent” (as opposed to an officer).

Hardly a recommendation. And yet becoming a Special Agent in Charge and managing spies is her goal. More to the point, she is willing to assume the role of a spy temporarily as a means to that end. It’s all very layered and nuanced and I love it.

Let me add that I do really love a good laugh and so am grateful for the many ways that this concept of real-versus-fantasy undercover work has been portrayed on screen. From Get Smart through the Austin Powers movies and right up to Melissa McCarthy in Spy, taking the supposed glamor of secret service and standing it on its head is guaranteed to elevate my mood. In American Spy, we see just how much self-sacrifice and dogged commitment is required of true professionals. All the chuckles come from watching those who are not suited for the job, like the pompous ASAC, Rick Gold, or Ed Ross’s drunk partner, Phillip.

Andrew: Our pacing in the first half has had a lot of setup so far, with only a few revelations and other big moments. I’m enjoying the slow burn—how about you?

David: Things definitely started off with a bang—literally and figuratively—and I did find myself anticipating a return to that level of excitement, only to realize after several chapters that the book had other ideas. Once that became clear, I settled in for the more measured pace and embraced the extended setup. It was more a matter of misplaced expectations than disappointment with the book.

This prolonged simmer is doing its job, though. What we’re gradually being shown, I think, is Marie on her journey to being whole. She’s trying to negotiate personal self-discovery, achieve professional advancement against the odds, and honor her responsibility to others. She’s making peace with the past while charting her sons’ futures. It’s implied that Marie doesn’t think she’ll be around to tell this story directly to William and Tommy when they’re older. There’s a bittersweet element to her project.

Andrew: And it means there’s so much at stake—lots of tension here. I’m certainly riveted at this point in the book, and excited to find out what’s to come. What about you?

David: I want to know what really happened to Helene, what’s up with the peripheral Daniel Slater, how much of Marie’s affair with Thomas Sankara is business versus pleasure, whether Thomas is aware of the spy in his bed, and who is hunting Marie now? For starters. And I wouldn’t complain if we began to see more action. Surely the slow burn is about to catch fire?

Andrew: We’re going to find out—I can’t wait. Thanks for joining us this week, David. To everyone else, join us in the discussion below, and then we’ll see you next week to discuss the conclusion of American Spy.


The Camp ToB 2019 Calendar


The Tournament of Books’ organizers Andrew Womack and Rosecrans Baldwin are TMN’s co-founders. Baldwin’s most recent book is Everything Now, winner of the 2022 California Book Award. For his other books, try More by The Tournament of Books Staff

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