An Ordinary Spy – Joseph Weisburg

3 out of 5

The postscript of Joseph Weisburg’s – as it’s presented to us – spy confessional, is graceful, and moving. It’s a perfect, reflective take on the human undercurrent to the political backroom dealings and machinations about which we’ve read for a couple hundred pages, and puts a needed Why on the story we’ve experienced. The initial Part of the book, in which a fresh CIA agent works his way into a station posting and quickly gets wrapped up in intrigue, is thrilling – perhaps not directly for any fisticuffs, which it lacks, but in the way author Weisburg lays out the specifics and day-to-day of the job, and the little pieces one must play and remain aware of, even when handling the seemingly most mundane of tasks. We get inside our narrator’s mind, and thus feel his tension and excitement along the way. The middle Part of the book – its most lengthy – connects our first spy to another – Bobby – and switches over to his story. There’s seemingly no direct correlation between their tales, beyond some high-level synergies of how they both ended up, but we’ve been given little bits and pieces here and there that suggest further intrigue, and so we pay attention, even as Bobby’s story starts going in directions which, to me, made it apparent that ‘The Ordinary Spy’s’ title is maybe not meant to be underplaying anything.

That’s not to say Bobby’s story isn’t worthwhile or interesting; that’s not to say there aren’t further things to discover and reveal. The first thing you’ll likely notice while reading Weisburg’s book is that the text has been “reviewed” by the CIA’s board for such things, and so has requested that any sensitive information be redacted – black lines struck through text. At first (in the first part), it comes across as part of the puzzle of What’s What: we’re being kept from key information that we’ll have to intuit. However, as one progresses through the parts, on the way to that final denouncement – the book’s last twenty pages – it becomes clearer that this isn’t a mystery or puzzle, but rather an exercise in “seeing” what matters: we don’t need the specifics to understand the people in the story, and the people are of the utmost important – or they should be. Or should they be?

Those, to me, are the questions Weisburg is asking, using his real-world experience with the CIA to sift through them, showing how a professional life of training toward paranoia and a structure that demands paradoxes – take initiative; don’t step out of line – can affect us, and the world around us, directly and indirectly. Interesting questions, for sure, but how effectively they’re asked – that is, how well Weisburg has stitched together the book’s parts – will determine how impactful the book is.

Read as a text on CIA operations, even with the redacted info, it’s definitely fascinating. And, as mentioned, I appreciated the postscript immensely. However, yeah, I think the way it navigates through the preceding parts is somewhat misleading, and not in a meta way that enhances the experience as a whole. Rather, as mentioned, you get to a point where you realize there’s likely not some grand conspiracy or bogeyman out to get our narrators; that their experiences are, indeed, “ordinary.”