July 2003

Michael Farrelly


The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk by David Ambrose

Charlie Monk is a secret agent.

Charlie Monk is a mental patient.

Charle Monk is both and neither.

It is said that true genius is the ability to hold two contradictory notions in one's mind at the same time. That said, David Ambrose's new book The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk is the definition of genius.

The set-up is that Charlie Monk believes he is a top government agent on a surveillance mission. Then he remembers things, glimpses of a life that he never had before. Suddenly Charlie is in the care of Dr. Susan Flemying, a psychiatrist who specializes in unique cases of amnesia, which seem to be the cause of Charlie's suffering.

Seems. As in seeming. As in all is not as it seems.

Is Charlie in fact a madman in a hospital dreaming of a Walter Mitty style superspy lifestyle? It can certainly seem that way at times. When being sent on a mission Charlie's comforted by his handler, known as "Control," that he can order up some girls if he'd like. And then there's the sole rule of Charlie's organization, "Don't fuck up."

Ambrose writes the book with the ease and charm of someone who has read every James Bond book and found them to be exactly what Ian Fleming intended: funny. James Bond is a joke; he's a series of double entendres and extended body humor that thirteen year olds find hysterical. James Bond is not a real person, he's not even a well drawn fictional person; he's as thin as paper. Charlie Monk is trying his best to be James Bond, and there's the problem and the humor of the story.

Being a spy, if Tom Clancy's various meaty books on the subject are to be believed, is a boring job involving linguistics, surveillance and a great deal of waiting about for things to happen. There's never a bomb ticking down to zero or a satellite aiming a death laser at a hospital. It's paperwork and long hours. Charlie's world is straight out of spy fiction. Men tailing each other, long dark hallways, surreptitious meetings under cover of shadow and dark dealings on a global scale. So it is when Dr. Flemying, with her James Bond author's pseudo-surname, enters his life that the banality of "the real world" cuts in on Charlie's assassination tango. Flemying interjects the notion that all the capers are in fact just products of fevered imagination, the same kind of wish-fulfillment that causes every man to utter "Bond, James Bond" when donning a tuxedo.

If Ambrose's books suffers in one place itís in a very easy comparison to the "Unauthorized Autobiography" of game show cretin Chuck Barris, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Barris too suffered from a struggle with the reality of his life. Unlike Barris's convoluted half-truths, Charlie Monk is an elegant tale of the beauty of spycraft and the hope that in every dream there is truth, and that every truth is simply a dream.

The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk by David Ambrose
Warner Books
ISBN: 0446527963
288 Pages