The Prodigal Spy

by Joseph Kanon

Published by Broadway Books

1998, 416 pages

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The Prodigal Bond

Reviewed by David Grayson


In Prague with a woman he only just met, and waiting to reunite with the father he has not seen in twenty years, Nick Kotlar suddenly realizes that his father who fled the country during the McCarthy era won't be able to recognize him.

How would his father find them? It was Nick who would have changed, no longer a boy. It occurred to him that his father would know him only because he was sitting with Molly.

The Prodigal Spy by Joseph Kanon is many things: a mystery, a love story, a historical novel. But it is as a father-son story that The Prodigal Spy is most rewarding.

It is 1950 and the House Un-American Activities Committee accuses Walter Kotlar of being a Communist spy. Ten-year-old Nick and his nanny go to the movies and, in a room full of theatergoers, see his father on the big screen newsreel being interrogated by a bully congressman:

Nick lost his father halfway through and he could tell the audience wasn't really following either. They could hear only the rhythm of Welles's interrogation, the slow build and rising pitch that seemed to hammer his father into his chair. The momentum of it, not the words, became the accusation. The congressman was so sure -- he must know. It didn't really matter what he said, so long as the voice rushed along, gathering speed.

Kanon perfectly evokes the interrogations and (what now seems) the surreal atmosphere of the period. The dialogue between Kotlar and Welles is particularly nuanced. The reader later discovers that Kotlar is not innocent, though the information he gave the Soviets was unclassified and inconsequential. The interrogations, however, remain chilling: we know most of the victims were innocent.

Walter Kotlar flees the country, leaving his loving wife and son to pick up the pieces. Was his father guilty? And did his father kill, or drive to suicide, the young Rosemary Cochrane, who testified against him? Twenty years later, as a directionless Vietnam vet and graduate student living in London, Nick begins to search for answers.

He meets Molly, an American hippie type, who informs him that his father is now living in Czechoslovakia and wants to see Nick. The two journey to Prague, where Nick learns that his father was betrayed and framed for murder. Nick also learns of his father's life, including his new wife.

"Anicka, this is my son," his father said. "Nick, my wife, Anna." So easy. The whole tangled mess reduced to a simple introduction. She held out her hand.

As Nick and Molly begin to unravel the story, they fall in love -- not without conflict, of course. Nick discovers that Molly is also connected to his father's story. Unfortunately, the relationship and tension between Nick and Molly feels contrived at times, though Kanon's insights into their emotional lives makes it worthwhile.

As the political, romantic and family dramas are played out and race toward the denouement, the book is on fire. However, while Nick's villain is a mystery to Nick, he probably will not be to the reader, and the climax comes as no surprise. Moreover, the book ends in a second climax of sorts, when the first link in the chain is captured, and this ending feels overdrawn and superfluous.

None of this diminishes Kanon's accomplishment. As a mystery, the reader is eager throughout. As a history of McCarthyism, though fictional, The Prodigal Spy is a valuable story. As a work of strong psychological insight, and a story of the bonds of family, The Prodigal Spy goes to the heart of things. | February 1999


David Grayson is a freelance writer and poet living in San Francisco.