Spies in Canaan by David Park


I have previously read two books by the Irish writer David Park and think frequently of one of them, Travelling in a Strange Land. Though I don’t remember where I read about this one, I knew it was about an American CIA operative in Vietnam at the very end of the war and some consequent events 40 years later.

Mike describes himself as a “prairie boy” whose family was mainstream farm community and religious. He tells that in his late teenage years,

gradually those stories with which I had grown up came to be overlaid with different ones. So Jonah and his whale was replaced by an old man struggling to land a giant fish — an old man who in his youth from the deck of his boat had seen lions walking on an African beach — and the feeding of the five thousand was pushed aside by what felt like the even greater miracle of Rose of Sharon suckling a dying man. And these stories gave me a different world in which to live, told me I wasn’t crazy and more than anything told me I wasn’t alone, while whispering that the seemingly endless stretch to the horizon might in time come to be filled with something I hoped would reveal itself to be love.

Oh my, such a lovely and hopeful passage that tells us how the “prairie boy” started on his way to an Ivy college, then to work for the CIA in a low-level desk job in Vietnam.

A friend Mike makes in Vietnam, also a desk-jockey American spy, is writing a book and likes to go to the hotel where Graham Greene reportedly wrote The Quiet American. That book, written in 1955 presages the outcome of the horrifically naive American attitude toward the Vietnamese.  I read that chilling book just last month. Some of Corley’s experiences reveal the extent of the treachery of the US military and the CIA in that war.

There were a few word usages that made it hard to see Mike as an American. Though I have connections to the Midwest, I am unaware of people thinking of themselves as prairie folk. When Mike’s friend refers to his family having “hired” a cottage on the beach in Connecticut, I couldn’t see them as Americans. And Mike once referred to an experience being different “to” all he was accustomed to.

I was mystified by the title because, although I never missed a Sunday School class for nine years and have the pins to prove it (picture on the left), I was unaware of the kids’ song “Twelve men went to spy out Canaan, ten were bad, two were good.” It’s worth a listen on You Tube. The twelve were chiefs of the Tribes of Israel sent by Moses on God’s orders to report on that land promised to the Israelites. The assessment of the ten bad spies was that God would not help them achieve dominion over Canaan, resulting in all the tribes being forced to wander in the desert for forty years. The two good spies were the only men of their generation allowed to enter the “Promised Land” after the forty years. I’m struggling to overlay that story with the horror that the US imposed on Vietnam and ourselves and its application in the case of two or three spies forty years later.

This story of the experiences of the characters in Vietnam was powerful and even more so for those who worked with the Americans during the war. A young man who believes himself to be a good man learns he is the instrument of evil. The betrayals and feeble, unsuccessful efforts to fulfill the promises are painful to read about. My copy of the book is bristling with sticky notes to mark the poignant passages.

I must reiterate here that my goal in writing about the books I read is not a true review,  giving a book is full due, or noting its shortcomings. My goal is to record here certain aspects of books that I want to remember.

David Park, Spies in Canaan, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2023, 188 pages.

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