An outspoken critic of the Bush administration (and the Catholic Church), James Carroll is a former priest who is becoming a redoubtable figure in contemporary letters. Since 1974, besides writing a regular column for The Boston Globe, he has published over a dozen books, including novels, memoirs and a book of poems. He won the National Book Award in 1996 for his memoir, An American Requiem. Now he blends autobiography, history and the spy thriller in Secret Father, his first novel in nine years.
Set in the Soviet area of Berlin, it is a tale of high school friends parted by the cold war and the Berlin Wall. The story begins in Germany in 1961, just after the U-2 incident and before the construction of the Berlin Wall. The time of narration is some 40 years after the events described and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which is the scene of a revelatory ending.
The point of view alternates between that of Paul Montgomery and that of his son, Michael. A banker for Chase Manhattan in Frankfurt, Germany, Paul worries when Michael does not return home from his U.S. high school in Wiesbaden. From Paul’s ruminations as he waits, we learn of Michael’s childhood polio, and of Paul’s wife Edie’s determined love and care for Michael. A family argument a year before sent Edie driving off into the night only to have her vehicle hit by a truck; she was killed.
A call to the school is no help. Further inquiries lead Paul to the stepfather of Michael’s best high school friend, Ulrich (or Rick) Healy. And here the fathers-and-sons story takes an autobiographical twist. As was Carroll’s own father, General David Healy is chief of U.S. Intelligence in West Germany. From Healy, Paul learns that Michael, Ulrich and another classmate, Katharine (Kit) Carson, are believed to have gone to a car race at the Nürnberg Ring. Puzzled at the reception given him by Healy, Paul is even more surprised when Healy’s German wife, Charlotte, arranges a clandestine meeting with Paul to discuss what really lies behind the teenagers’ disappearance: a trip to May Day festivities in Berlin. It turns out that Ulrich took the general’s duffel bag, and it is about this that Healy is most worried. Charlotte and Paul agree to go to Berlin together, but before that happens, the perspective shifts.
Michael’s narrative turns to one of friendship, and the perspective on Europe and the United States in the early 1960’s becomes more vivid. Here, however, the dialogue of Michael and his friends sometimes sinks to the level of a young adult novel. Michael, because of his limp, and Ulrich, because of his name and German background, are both outsiders at the American school. Ulrich dresses in black, affects long hair and reads the radical thinker Herbert Marcuse. It is Ulrich’s idea to go to Berlin, where he believes the birth of genuine socialism is possible. When their train to Berlin stops at the East German border, the three are questioned by black M.P.’s and East German soldiers. Ulrich discovers that in his father’s duffel bag is a canister containing microfilm.
Though they realize the seriousness of their situation, the three teenagers determine to attend both West and East German celebrations. Helped by Josef Tramm, a representative of the German trade union council who befriends them in the train station, the three find lodgings in a workers’ hostel and prepare for the next day’s adventure. But just as Michael learns of Kit’s feelings for him, and that Tramm may be an East German agent, the narrative perspective shifts again.
We follow Paul and Charlotte to Berlin, where they learn that the three teenagers have been arrested. Trying to free the trio, Paul and Charlotte make inquiries and visit the former Gestapo headquarters and now Stasi (East German secret police) bastion: the legendary Schloss Pankow. It is here, Paul learns, that Nazi atrocities took place on May Day, 1945events mysteriously connected with Ulrich’s biological father. Charlotte is at once confiding and secretive in her relationship with Paul. Her reticence about her time as a rubble woman in Berlin after the war only adds to the mystery.
Tensions mount with characteristic espionage melodrama. And just as Edie’s love for her son had been a compass for Michael, so, in the end, Charlotte’s love for her son shapes the story’s dramatic climax. The narrative closes in 1989, as the Berlin Wall comes down. After years apart, the former friendsUlrich and Michaelare reunited, and many questions find answers. The conclusion again merges fiction and history, and the long view from the early 1990’s provides a final, elegiac tone.
Secret Father has much to recommend it. It is political thriller, a personal history of a critical point in the cold war, a study in personal relationsfriendship, erotic attraction and maternal loveas well as relations between East and West. And it succeeds on every level. Carroll has a sensitive understanding of suffering and the way it affects an individual’s response to the world. Particularly poignant are Michael’s reflections on what makes for his and his friend’s differing worldviews. For Michael it was losing his motherhis caregiver and support during his illness that has defined his life. This experience accounts for his maturity under stress and his balanced view of the events he narrates.
Ulrich’s experience is different. Michael opines that, during the time after Ulrich had lost his biological father and before General Healy married Charlotte, Ulrich and his mother had shared a special bond. From her, just when he needed it most, he had the guarantee that reality is benign, that life is trustworthy, or, as Einstein put it, that the universe is a friend. Ulrich’s sense of trust and friendship in a dangerous universe explains not only his radical politics but his journey to Berlin and his subsequent choices in life.
What Carroll reveals in this juxtaposition of Michael’s and Ulrich’s differing worldviews may be the key to understanding the novel’s moving effect. Herein, too, the novel may have a lesson to teach about a world that even now seems on the verge of entering another cold war.