Data hacking, video monitoring, computer tracking, phone tapping, NSA drones — 21st-century surveillance practices are enough to make anyone feel paranoid. But half a century ago, it was a whole different ballgame. Unlike today’s sense of a detached, omniscient Big Brother always watching, security concerns of the 1950s were handled eye-to-eye and hands-on, often with devastating side effects to those initiating the subterfuge.
Scott O’Connor’s provocative new literary thriller, “Half World,” plunges us into the grim and murky world of ’50s Cold War spycraft. Based on a real postwar mind-control program run by the CIA and continued into the 1970s, “Half World” is part literary suspense, part psychological examination with undercurrents of existential dread and abiding hope of redemption.
The novel opens in 1956, as government operative Henry March moves his family across country from Arlington, Va., to San Francisco, where he has been reassigned. While Henry’s wife, Ginnie, seems to take it in stride, it’s a difficult move for 10-year-old Hannah, bereft of her social circle, and supersensitive 7-year-old Thomas, whose behavior suggests autism.
But it’s hardest of all on Henry himself, who knows the move is a kind of punishment, the result of his misplaced trust in a mentor who becomes a traitor, sending everything they had worked on “into the mouth of the enemy.” Henry’s loyalties come under immediate question.
From here forward, “his integrity had to be beyond reproach. If that was no longer the case, then all that was left was his sense of duty, his willingness to follow orders.” That faithful willingness is what catapults Henry down the rabbit hole of his undoing.
In his old job, Henry was called the Mutual Man, working for a department dedicated to finding leaks, weaknesses, untruths among those who professed loyalty to country. He was considered inscrutable, slightly antisocial. “Right-angled and exact in his manners, his movements. Nondescript in appearance, his suit the color of the sidewalk outside.”
His new job trades on these qualities but ups the ante, sending Henry into a cruel, devious world of extreme experimental interrogation techniques and drug-induced mind control.
All the while, Henry spends hours alone sorting through 10 years of memories, books, and documents, trying to understand how he had missed anticipating the betrayal by his mentor, a man he’d genuinely liked and respected, who’d always urged him to leave it all behind and go home to his family each night, saying, “You have to remind yourself of who you really are.”
Just when we get somewhat settled into the 1950s and Henry’s wrenching story, “Half World” abruptly shifts 16 years ahead to follow another operative, Dickie Ashby, who is just emerging from deep undercover and finding himself totally disoriented.
“The pleasantries and rituals of civilization seemed like a shared joke or some kind of sinister game after living in a place where moment-to-moment existence was husked down to the raw basics, to violence and survival.”
He sums up the operative’s dilemma living under false pretenses, feeling with each lie that “he was stripping away another layer of what was left of himself, fighting off waves of a strange, disassociated panic.”
Dickie is assigned to infiltrate a group claiming to be victims of government brainwashing, and his story finds its connection back to Henry through his children, Hannah and Thomas, now young adults.
O’Connor (“Untouchable”) cleverly bridges time and brings the story into an uneasy but effective sense of balance and closure. But the plot is not really the point. “Half World” is not a book to read quickly for what happens next, but one to ponder slowly along the way. Often, it can be a grim, confusing slog through a dark, murky world, but O’Connor writes with vivid descriptive detail and acute psychological insight, as well as flashes of searing, wry humor and occasional moments that simply break your heart.
It is a probing examination of the nature of identity, compromise, and trust — personal and institutional. It’s also a sharply etched portrayal of the quest for truth and redemption amid moral ambiguity. It’s telling that the novel’s epigraph quotes John 8:32, inscribed at the entrance of CIA headquarters: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Karen Campbell is a regular contributor to the Globe. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.