Nature of the Game, p.1James Grady
The Nature of the Game
Open Road Integrated Media ebook
Every ship of state sails on a river of darkness.
—Gen. William Cochran
Deputy Director, CIA
De Oppresso Liber
Why Here, Why Now
I often wondered if I’d be killed trying to write The Nature of the Game, the fictional spy saga of the Boomer generation.
History creates us even as we create history. Born after Word War II into the Cold War, I grew up in a tough, corrupt, but loving Montana prairie town surrounded by Minuteman missile sites, waiting for when—not if, but when—the button would be pushed and dynamite charges would blow concrete doors off those underground silos so that screaming missiles could scar our blue sky and create Dr. Strangelove’s mushroom-cloud Armageddon. The Civil Rights battles to let non-white kids my age share our bathrooms and schools and voting booths rippled through my youth. Assassination politics cut down JFK: If “they” could kill the President, for sure they could kill you. The Beatles blew the doors off the “it’s only rock ’n’ roll” prison already breached by poets like Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and Bob Dylan. Guys I grew up with got swallowed by a 10,000-day Southeast Asian war where too slowly we realized “victory” for the United States defied definition or delivery.
“Naïve but lucky” sums up my youth. Whatever compels me to write fiction let me create a first novel called Six Days of the Condor when I was twenty-three, a story that became a great movie starring Robert Redford and gave wings to my dreams.
Thanks to Otto Penzler and The Mysterious Press, that book and its strange saga—including how Condor inspired a secret 2,000-man spy group in the Soviet Union’s KGB—is available as an e-book, as is the post-9/11 re-imagining of my Condor character in the novella condor.net.
The crucible for this novel came after Condor.
By the time I was twenty-five, I’d worked my way through the University of Montana on road crews and with part-time jobs like librarian and gravedigger. I’d been an aide to Montana’s U.S. Senator Lee Metcalf during Watergate’s last year. With first novel Condor on the bookshelves, I had two novels in publishing’s pipeline while “my” Robert Redford/Condor movie crouched, poised to fly to theaters across the world.
And then out of the blue, I stumbled into a job as an investigative reporter for syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, the only reporter Nixon’s Watergate thugs feared enough to try to murder, a muckraker whose column appeared in 1,000 newspapers for twenty million Americans.
What a rush! Jack’s handful of “investigative reporters” covered who did what to whom, with no pretense of “objectivity” (then journalism’s official standard), but with the promise to be fair and fearless. I reported and wrote—in Jack’s bizarre Gilbert & Sullivan prose style—stories on Congressional investigations, spies in the Central Intelligence Agency and other organizations, heroin and cocaine dealing, extremist politics of both the left and the right that sometimes veered into terrorism, big money muscling public policy, cults like the Manson family, the old Mafia, new emerging crime groups, Wall Street shenanigans, billions in government waste, military mastery and military madness, American villains, and more than a few American heroes.
I worked for Jack for four years before I realized my hunger to write fiction—and to see my byline—was far stronger than my yen to be one of his muckrakers. Besides, I was no journalism star. Most of my colleagues at Jack’s were better journalists than I, as were the vast majority of American reporters who did not have the fear-stoked access granted those of us who carried Jack’s press pass.
While I was at Jack’s in those post-Watergate days, I ventured into America’s noir underworld. I rode with cops, went into prisons, made contacts in the intelligence community that I’d fictionalized in Condor without knowing any real “spooks.” What I experienced ranged from learning such minutiae as why a particular U.S. Navy plane landed in a backwater African country seemingly far from that day’s international crisis, to a snowy December day circa 1979 when—off the record—an executive of the Drug Enforcement Agency confided to me that “in less than a decade,” marijuana and cocaine would be legal. Of course marijuana, I told him, but I wasn’t sure about cocaine. Neither of us foresaw the personal, criminal, and international political horrors that created the twenty-first century’s narco-states.
By the time I left Jack’s team, I had learned all sorts of surprising things from spies who never revealed (maybe never knew) the whole truth, cops whose badges seemed bigger than their beats, warriors who fought different wars than my regular military friends, and outlaws who felt less than evil. From all that emerged a sense that the noir world that always shadows our official history was evolving with a new essence because of my generation.
It wasn’t just sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. It wasn’t just the battle-scarred post-sixties political scene. It wasn’t just post-Vietnam War cynicism chronically misreported with bad clichés. It wasn’t just the entitlement clash of my Baby Boomer generation gaining its predictable footings within the harsh realities of the Cold War inherited from our parents. It wasn’t just an outlaws’ party where gun-heavy spies, smugglers, political extremists, and gangsters swapped angry, stoned stories about the quintessential American experience of high school.
It was some mash of all that and more. Some shift of our cultural consciousness that began the day bullets killed JFK in Dallas and—though I didn’t know it at the time—ran its Act One era until a movie star president rallied our country even as he beat a spy scandal called Iran-Contra. This was an essence captured best the same year of Redford’s Condor movie by my generation’s great American author Bruce Springsteen, who called it “our runaway American dream.”
That essence was something I felt compelled to write about.
So when I left Jack’s, I drove into our noir world.
Not knowing where I’d get.
But knowing that’s where my story was—a story that, unlike most other not-so-lucky authors, I might be able to base in reality.
At first I thought I was on a continuum from my Jack Anderson muckraker days. With three published novels notched to my name, I thought that maybe I could write a nonfiction book, try to capture factually what once upon a time I’d only been able to make up or experience in other people’s fiction.
I was more naïve than I realized.
But still lucky.
Because the combination of Condor’s fame, Jack’s reputation, and my own slight but vouched-for history let me go places I could never factually chronicle. This access made such places and the people who created them all the more fascinating and fit far better into my fictional drive than being a reporter or historian. I wanted to understand, to feel what our Baby Boomer noir world was like, and to know the other souls running out there. Sometimes we called it the game, sometimes we called it the life, but whatever you call it, I was there.
Not that there was or is any one “there.” The noir world is like a whiff of marijuana smoke on a city street, a transitory time and place defined by its transactions and attitude. D.C. San Francisco. London. Kentucky. Baltimore. Chicago. L.A. Paris. Montana. Manhattan. Somehow with my Anderson-Condor-schooled eyes, I kept discovering what was there before and what now came with my generation’s arrival.
When you walk amidst spies or terrorists or outlaws, and those who hunt them, it’s easy to end up as a proximity casualty. You cross legitimate borders even while you must never cross certain moral lines. Life gets kaleidoscopic, out of whack. Time and perspective distort. Violence or violation is only ever a heartbeat aw
After about three years, I got out while I could. The game was not the life or death I wanted.
But while my writing had been changed—charged—forever, I still didn’t have the big book that triggered my quest.
I’d been up front and honest with everyone—good guys, bad guys, all the guys with guns. Everybody knew I was there for some grand story I’d make up that wasn’t about any of them but was about all of us then in the game, in the life. They all knew I was there to understand so I could write about what I grokked—as author Robert Heinlein called it in his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land.
They were cool with that, that was our deal, and it worked, because Baby Boomers are the first “media generation,” so being chronicled overrode the omertà reticence of history’s previous noirs. Our generation is infected with the belief that being revealed in media, even as a secret source, equals redemption, makes us real in a world where what’s on TV or computer monitors or in movies or books creates a worthwhile existence. Writers more learned than I have chronicled this cultural/psychological phenomenon, but this force is part of what let me go out there and come back alive.
The decompression from that trip took a few years and writing a couple of novels.
Then, abruptly, what woke in me was a savage saga of the game as seen through the histories of three Baby Boomers, all of them in their own right spies, all trapped in a life-or-death chase from sea to shining sea, a noir odyssey that started with this vision:
“At seven minutes to midnight on an L.A. winter Sunday, Jud Stuart looked into the bar mirror and realized that the skinny guy in the plaid sports coat had been sent to kill him.”
But written true.
That’s this novel: The Nature of the Game.
It came out originally under another title: River of Darkness.
When this saga of Baby Boomer spies ambushed me, it had no title. How could one name sum up that noir world? But as my characters of Jud and Wes and Nick emerged in my mind, what struck me is how their world felt, what it had felt like to be swept up in the noir spy saga of my past, swept up as if…by a river.
Like many Baby Boomers, a soundtrack of music energizes my life. I was a junior in my Montana north-country high school when my car radio crackled with Canadian signer Gordon Lightfoot’s great hit “Ribbon of Darkness.” Years later, as Jud and Wes and Nick raced through my mind, that song echoed behind them—but re-written as “river of darkness.” That’s what the noir world I’d survived had been: a river of darkness. That’s what swept up Jud, Wes, and Nick, and the women who loved them.
Those were the days before the Internet, but I lived in D.C. My heart thundered against my ribs like I had a hellhound on my trail as I drove to Capitol Hill, raced into the Library of Congress, found a Help desk where the clerk checked her computer…and found no other novels titled River of Darkness. Relief flooded over me. I was home free with a title that captured the feeling of the novel.
A title I wasn’t sure how to work into the book.
A title that my editor liked but did not love.
A sentiment shared by a major source for the novel: a spy who sat at the bar of a south-of-Hollywood restaurant with me when I lived in L.A. while working on the novel and on a CBS TV drama about a Congressman.
Driving to that dinnertime rendezvous, my rental car radio played the great Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil.”
“Too bad I can’t use that title,” I told my source as we sat at the bar. A few years earlier, a Special Forces veteran named Kent Anderson…
“Yeah, I think I know him,” said my man.
Kent wrote a great novel about Vietnam that he called Sympathy for the Devil.
Scooped, said journalist me.
“Too bad,” said my source. “I like what you got, but kinda wish it was more about the—I don’t know—the heart of what goes on.”
“You mean like The Heart of the Matter?” I asked, and watched his face glow until I told him the great novelist Graham Greene had already grabbed that wonderful title.
My source shrugged.
Then he went back to revealing what spies can do with a B-52 bomber.
Authors are stubborn. Inspiration hit me with the River concept, and when none of my colleagues or sources could offer me a better title or a more convincing argument that I was wrong, I created an epigraph for the novel from its completely fictional spymaster, Deputy Director of the CIA General William “Billy” Cochran, that summed up a timeless truth: “Every ship of state sails on a river of darkness.”
So that’s the title my novel bore when first released in 1991.
Of its often glowing reviews, my favorite and most humbling came from Rambo’s creator David Morrell in The Washington Post. He loved my title’s metaphor, and after comparing the book to works by John le Carré and Charles McCarry, he wrote:
“Grady has given us…an astonishingly effective and accurate fictional portrayal of American covert intelligence operations from the 1960s onward…. What distinguishes this thriller…is the vividness of the book’s characters, the relentlessness of its pace and the authenticity of its covert-operations tradecraft. The action scenes are exemplary, the sense of fear is palpable…. the best thriller I’ve read this year.”
Crime novelist James Ellroy called my story: “Brutal, moving…claims your soul and nails it to the wall.”
Decades after its first publication, I still get fan mail praising the book.
And that’s great.
Enough reason to republish it now, with the added importance of remembering that my generation got here—for our Third Act—by crawling out of our First Act daze as my novel ends.
Plus, I get to make the story resonate more by using the perfect title that I realized on the day that I ripped open the box of my saga’s brand new published book edition.
Three thoughts collided when I first saw the book I’d risked my life to write.
First came the awe every author feels when he sees his inspiration made real right there in front of his eyes, whether it’s a movie or TV production, a hardback book or a poem in an obscure journal or the wondrous lines flowing from an e-book screen. That awe says: Some stranger can now see a vision as best as I could capture it.
Second came thoughts of Rudyard Kipling, who I thought coined “the game” to describe the world of spies. In fact, Kipling’s Kim popularized “the great game” to describe the rivalries between the British and Russian empires before World War II, a phrase probably coined by a British spy, but never mind reality, I was in the midst of a creative collision.
Third flashed my memory of that bar night with my source, the title regret generated by what I’d heard on the rental car radio, the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil” with Mick Jagger proclaiming: “…what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.”
An epiphany burst out of my mental collision.
Not your game, Mick: the game.
Let the reader sort out the devils and angels.
Then, seeing my published book that first time, too late I realized what was the perfect title for the noir saga in which Jud, Wes, and Nick shoot through the spy history of their Baby Boomer generation: The Nature of the Game.
But now, thanks to this new edition in a new format, I can reveal and revise one of my best novels. That’s the title that is.
At seven minutes to midnight on an L.A. winter Sunday, Jud Stuart looked into the bar mirror and realized that the skinny guy in the plaid sports coat had been sent to kill him.
It’s about time, thought Jud.
Perched on a stool by the front door, the skinny guy
Jud’s shaking hands knocked over the empty shot glass as he raised his beer schooner like a chalice. He drained the cup of its tangy brew, and along with fear and anger, a cold sense of relief flowed through him. After a thousand aimless and drunken days, he was on familiar ground. The assassin made sense.
The bartender was beefy and lied about having played college football. He sidled down to Jud, bobbed the toothpick in his mouth toward the coins by Jud’s empty glasses.
“Ain’t enough there for another round,” he told Jud.
“Then I better go straight,” muttered Jud. He was a big man on a barstool, barrel-chested with a truck-tire gut. Short reddish-brown hair. His arms were thick as most men’s calves. Once his face had been boyishly handsome, now it was slack, pale. Except for the flat blue of his bloodshot eyes.
Deception was the only way he could think of to escape. He closed his eyes, deliberately fell backward off the barstool, his arms wide to secretly use a judo breakfall.
But the alcohol in his blood ruined his timing, and he crashed honestly to the tile, smacking his head and blacking out.
“Looks like a walrus,” said the bartender.
The drunks at the bar didn’t look and didn’t laugh. The man in the plaid sports jacket had paid more for his clothes than anyone else in the bar; he was cleaner. He watched the bartender sweep Jud’s change into his own pocket as he walked around the bar.
“Get up!” yelled the bartender. “Get up or it’s the bull pen.”
The bartender kicked Jud’s blue-jean-clad shin. Unconscious, Jud’s stillness was true.
“Shit!” The bartender grabbed Jud’s ankles. “I don’t get paid to haul shit.” He jerked: Jud’s body scooted an inch.
“Hell,” said the bartender, “he must weigh a ton!”
Nature of the Game by James Grady / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes