Review: A Spy At Home
Author Joseph Rinaldo contacted me to review this and sent me a PDF to be able to read it on my iPad. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, given the wide range of seemingly divergent tags on the book’s Amazon page (ranging from bereavement, to embezzlement, to mental retardation, to fishing, to espionage) and the somewhat cryptic introduction from the author himself:
Garrison’s story begins when he retires from the CIA. In retirement Garrison shares the pain he inflicted on his family during his life abroad. Noah, Garrison’s adult son with Down syndrome, a form of mental retardation, doesn’t trust dad when he returns home. Experience has taught Noah that dad always leaves again. Over time they grow closer.
The book is written memoir-style, in first person as a series of recollections. The impact of the CIA and its training on the main character, Garrison, is unveiled through the course of the book, with periodic side-notes as the he tries to come to terms with the things he’s done on behalf of his country, and the impact those choices have on him as an emotional human being with a wife and child.
Louisa is written as a pragmatic, caring woman who has figured out how to live her life with a husband who is an only-sometimes presence. Yet she also demonstrates deep insight into his character as they learn to live together in retirement:
She kept eye contact as she walked over to me. Slowly she wrapped her arms around my waist. Gently, she whispered in my ear, “I won’t think less of a husband who cries, or gets mad, or goes fishing by himself for a long weekend. This husband doesn’t have to tell his wife anything about what happened, but this husband should come to grips with whatever haunts him from the past. That might help make him a better person, father, and husband.”
More harshly than I meant, I asked, “What am I doing wrong now?”
Louisa backed up, held my hand when she sat on the couch. “You spend more and more time staring at the walls and the TV. You don’t even realize you’re doing it, but your mind clearly isn’t in the present. You need to admit, or to forgive yourself for whatever you did. I know you. I know you never would’ve intentionally killed innocent people. Innocent people might have died because you helped others, but you never intended for them to die.”
So while the title may mislead some readers into thinking that there will be lots of dangerous details abroad, it’s the “at home” piece of the title that really drives the action. Garrison’s obvious abilities as a spy–his training in facial recognition, his ability to transfer vast sums with ease, his ability to assess a situation and the main players in it–fall far short of what is needed to live at home in harmony with his family. This is not to say that there aren’t many allusions to his activities overseas, as well as some direct remembrances, but truly the focus is on one man trying to come to grips with the value he has brought to the world around him.
The fact that his job has also brought danger to his family’s doorstep is another source of self-castigation. It’s not without irony that all his worries and schemes amount to nothing so much as a hill of beans in the face of other natural elements in the course of his life.
My two main niggles with this story: Garrison mentions accepting responsibility for his infant son in his 40s. By the end of the book, that child is himself approaching that age. Some of the action Garrison throws himself into after his retirement, thus means he’s at a rather advanced age himself, but the timeline jumps around some and it’s difficult to get a clear picture of how old he would have been at a certain point to be handling such high-intensity events. Which leads to my second critique: The frame story of the opening “Note to the Reader” indicates that this story is written with some intent to be published, but is really driven by a need to make himself known to his son–despite the implicit difficulties of sharing all of these complexities with someone constrained both by Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s. Because of that framing, it was difficult to reach past Garrison’s almost nihilistic world-view and not feel that there was a little too much of “but the lady doth protest too much”. And that makes the solution to his son’s care past his own death read a little like a handy Deus Ex Machina disentanglement of a major plot element.
All of that said, though, the leitmotif of whether humans are fundamentally good or fundamentally selfish/self-centered/untrustworthy elevates the work to a philosophical level: How much does your choice of career impact the lens through which you view your fellow man? For this strength alone I would be happy to recommend this to anyone looking for a story about how your perceptions of your life evolve as you continue to add experiences to your life. Beyond that, the author’s skill at outlining the process of learning to live with a Down syndrome or Alzheimer’s patient was gently and lovingly inserted into the tale, and comes from obvious real-life experience. Despite my inability to really pin down a genre, I suspect this book will be appreciated by a wide range of readers, and look forward to reading more from this author myself.