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Last Days of the Condor
by James Grady
Forge, $25.99, 304pp
Published: February 2015

I haven't read James Grady's much more famous Condor novels from the seventies, neither 'Six Days of the Condor', released in 1974 and vaguely adapted a year later into the film, 'Three Days of the Condor', nor the book's sequel, 1978's 'Shadow of the Condor'. I was more intrigued by this belated further sequel, published last year, mostly because it seemed to be the product of a new era entirely. The blurb highlighted a post-Snowden world where it becomes harder for anyone, trained or not, to successfully stay on the run.

Unfortunately, that's really not what this is. This is an attempt to play the game one more time with a much older hero, perhaps the Condor of the earlier books but perhaps not, as the real name provided doesn't match. He's a neat lead character because he begins the film retired, protected and locked away from his past through the use of powerful drugs. Some might now see him as a harmless old man, but Condor proves otherwise as he runs, after finding in his apartment the crucified body of one of his handlers, clearly setting him up for the murder. Faye Dozier, the victim's partner, is tasked with tracking Condor down before others find him first and kill him.

There's not really a heck of a lot of story here, in the sense that she finds him pretty easily and the two then team up to find a way home that keeps them both alive, but it's an interesting ride in a surprising way, mostly because of Grady's writing style. I certainly haven't ever read a thriller quite like this one before.

For a start, he obviously doesn't care for writing in sentences; he prefers writing in impressions. He makes this work because he shows us a world seen through the very different eyes of an experienced spy. Nothing is notable to us, but it's meaningful in ways we wouldn't see. Condor sees every door as a potential ambush point and every street as an opportunity for snipers, not to mention every item as something that can be used for a variety of purposes other than the ones for which they was intended. I bought into this completely and found the approach fascinating.

This extends to the way in which descriptions are often snap judgements of adjectives, because Condor sees everyone for what they mean as much as who they are. There's a massive amount of cynicism in his vision, appropriate perhaps for an aging spy who can't remember who he used to be. One glorious paragraph sees Condor walking past a succession of windows on the 'darkness covered streets' of Washington, DC and judging every last occupant harshly. He catches sight of 'young lovers struggling to figure out what they felt behind their smiles', 'first-time parents coaxing spoons of food into a pint-sized person who mortgaged them to the future', 'group houses with five onetime strangers assuring each other that these days when they could only get paid to serve high-priced coffee weren't their tomorrows'. In moments like these, Condor, and thus Grady, blisters with powerful prose.

I was less convinced by Grady's apparent fetish for adjectives. I was never quite sure if he was trying to write a novel or a free form poem, as this often veers between the two. The first half is more like the latter, but when the two protagonists join a third character, Grady shifts style to conversation and finds better success heaping insight into the dialogue. I had trouble with the approach of beat poetry written for suspense, but still found it fascinating. Many of the early chapters felt like a stream of consciousness attempt on the part of Condor to find belonging in what the jacket sleeve blurb fairly calls 'the Kafka-esque corridors of Washington DC', once he starts to remember his past and thus restores skills and insight that he has chemically suppressed for years.

Some of it certainly works, but there are paragraphs so crammed full of adjectives that we can't help but wonder if Grady used them just for the sake of using them. At one point Condor switches on a radio, only to hear 'dead Warren Zevon'. I tried to find meaning in 'dead' but couldn't, as a random track from any classic rock station would feature a dead singer half the time and without any reflection on the listener at all, even one who's running for his life from professional assassins. Yet, for every pointless adjective, Grady hauls out a striking insight to remind of the perspective shifts of Douglas Adams. Only a mere page after 'dead Warren Zevon', Condor reads a newspaper, and fails to 'find his name in the reports of what's supposed to be real and who's supposed to be dead'. That's beautiful and insightful writing.

This sort of contrast continues throughout the book. Grady keeps on finding ways for us to see the wonderful in the banal, only to spoil our fun with ampersand abuse and italic overload, as if he can't make up his mind whether he's writing advertising copy or a shopping list. This might be experimental writing from a bestseller, but it still often needed an editor to translate it back into the English language.

The best moments are when he calms down and lets perspective run the show, like when Condor describes Freedom's Garden of Scattered Memories as a place 'where they give the wind the ashes of the cremated.' The worst stem from that apparent sponsorship deal with Adjectives R Us. Sometimes they allow Grady to come across as magnificently poetic, but more frequently like a cheap nightclub imitation of Tom Waits. I often found myself reading his prose as if it were a set of lyrics, but it couldn't quite find the magic. I found many enjoyable visual interpretations like descriptions of money as 'five dollar portraits of Abe Lincoln' and urination as 'a stream of his life gurgling into a circular storm drain' but even these would have played better had they been delivered less frequently and with more purpose.

'Last Days of the Condor' has already been optioned for a movie adaptation, but I don't see it. Sure, the characters are worthy, the few that we spend any real time with. I can totally see John Malkovich wrestling with Condor, a variety of up and coming tough action women taking on Faye Dozier and a forgotten character actress of cult renown restoring herself to well-earned prominence as Merle, the lady Condor has eyes for early on and later seeks help from.

What the film would expose is the strong lack of story. This is certainly a suspenseful ride, but it's not suspenseful because of action scenes; there are only a couple that are cinematic in their scale and framing. It works when it looks inward at the characters, Condor especially but also Faye. I don't see how a filmmaker could fairly translate that to the screen while keeping it action-oriented. Inevitably the script would have to replace a host of character insight and conversation with action scenes that aren't here in the book because Grady just didn't write that many of them.

I am now interested in those earlier novels. They're relics of a different era but I can't help but wonder how Grady's writing has changed over those four decades. Was he really writing stylish if inconsistent poetry in prose way back in 1974? It might have been closer in time to the beat poets he clearly drew from, but it would have stood out from the thriller crowd all the more. Maybe, however, it was more substance and less style back then. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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