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CIA, Harold L. Humes and Harry Mathews

He didn’t tell me much about CIA’s modus operandi that I hadn’t heard already, but I did learn about the generally accepted laws of intelligence organizations. The basic rule is that if something can go wrong, it will. Applied to information from the field as it was read in supervisory offices, this means: “When something can be misinterpreted, it will be.”

Harry Mathews, My Life in CIA

We don’t keep secrets these days. We don’t want to be told things that should be kept secret. We don’t joke (especially in airports); we don’t pretend. We don’t pretend to know secrets. Secret agents among us pretend to be something they’re not. Secret agents often pretend to be what they think secret agents should be. And we assume we’re stalked, watched over, listened to by agents so invisible they don’t need to pretend to be secret. We don’t know what combination of places frequented, things read or words used on a cell or the internet will trigger the profile that becomes the secret we do not know we keep. So, what if we happen to be paranoid?

doc_humes_1968-fullinit_.jpgCheck out Rachael Donadio’s essay on Harold L. Humes in the New York Times Book Review, February 24, 2008. In the early 1950s Humes founded The Paris Review with Peter Matthiessen and others and wrote two highly-praised novels, The Underground City (1958), about post-World War II spies in Paris, and Men Die (1959), a story about African-American soldiers on a U.S. munitions base in the Caribbean. Called “Doc” by friends, Humes was a cultural touchstone in New York in the ‘50s and ’60s. He even managed Norman Mailer’s run for mayor in 1961. But he became increasingly paranoid. He believed the CIA was out to get him. It turns out, in fact, that his friend Matthiessen did work for the CIA, using The Paris Review as cover. Humes’ last years were defined by mental illness and odd behavior and he never wrote another novel. He died in 1992.

Humes’ daughter, Immy Humes, has made a documentary film about his life, and his books have been reissued by Random House. I haven’t read them, though I’m planning to do so. But I have another reason for bringing him up. Reading Donadio’s essay I thought of a superb book I did read a couple years ago, Harry Mathews’ My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 (Dalkey Archive Press, $13.95).
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