Before Austin Powers! Before Boysie Oakes! Before Inspector Clouseau! There was . . . James Wormold. In this satirical novel, Greene creates some wonderful comedy, real tension and beautiful characterizations. The Cold War was never so funny.
James Wormold is an English vacuum cleaner salesman who is headquartered in Havana. His wife has left him to raise Milly, their teenaged daughter, by himself. Milly has found that she can push her father around though guilt. After all, he can’t provide her with a mother figure, so he’s easily manipulated. Millie shows little regard for her father’s meager budget and that is what gets the ball rolling . . . .
Because of his need for cash, Wormold accepts being recruited into the British Secret Service. The pay, based on the amount of intelligence he returns, will supplement the vacuum cleaner business. The only problem is that Wormold knows no state secrets nor does he have appropriate ‘moles’ within his circle of friends. So, to keep the funds flowing, he invents agents, bombs, and the like.
Wormold’s bogus reporting leads to all sorts of hot water for anyone connected to him. Perhaps the funniest chapter in the whole book deals with a late night visit to Professor Sanchez. As Wormold goes to the man’s house to warn him that the police will be looking for the him, he interrupts an affair between the professor and his mistress. Wormold is mistaken by the mistress for a plant sent by Professor Sanchez’s angered wife. Anyone whose ever sat at a wedding reception with people you don’t know–or walked into an argument into which you’ve had no contribution will find this chapter skin-crawlingly embarassing and, as well as truly amusing.
Wormold is an interesting character and Greene shows us–with a very light touch–the growth of the man. He starts out as a cypher–he suffers the winds of fate in a really passive fashion. Geene demonstrates that he’s a man without religious belief, without country, without personality. Wormold’s wife left him saying, “Why don’t you do something, act some way, any way at all? You just stand there . . . ” Interestingly, it is how Wormold evolves and grows out of his blankness, his ennui, that makes Wormold such a great character. As he builds a life, and makes mistakes along the way, we see a cardboard cut-out grow into a moral figure.
I found this the most satisfying part of the novel. Wormold’s world was shattered by his wife’s leaving. And anyone who has ever had questions about personal identity will empathize with Wormold’s vacillations. People can really fall apart after divorce, major surgery, or economic crisis. But as Edwin Friedman wrote, “A self is better than no self.” Wormold discovers what it means to grow into a self. . . . and I owe him a tip of the hat for it.
Music to listen to: Robert Palmer’s Woke Up Laughing. Especially Charanga.