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Smiley’s People
by John le Carré

Field-Tested by Tobias Seamon

in Albany, New York

All summers are created equal, but some are more equal than others, and the most memorable summer reading experience I ever had was in my mid-twenties when John le Carré's Smiley's People got me through the worst August of my life.

I was living with my brother and a maniac named Matt on the top floor of a dilapidated building in Albany. The grimy warren of apartments defied belief. No one paid rent after the landlord was jailed for repeated DWI's, a dog constantly whined within echoing courtyard walls, and a couple of Latino transsexuals crashed on mattresses in a sub-basement boiler room. Our apartment was equally surreal. Matt had just graduated with a studio art degree and our place was filled with sculptures composed of old machine parts and animal bones. Everywhere you looked: femurs epoxied to rusted gears, sheep skulls, and a cow's immense hipbone attached to an iron wheel. Matt also had two vicious ferrets named Poncho and Lefty who liked to bite. The apartment had one grace though: a sliding glass door led onto a rooftop patio where we hung out, dranks beers, and listened to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

Everything was good until a chronic kidney condition flared up. A failed ten-hour surgery was followed by repeated hospitalizations. The surreality increased after a phone call from one Nurse Gray with my insurance company, who deemed a hospital stay as “unnecessary.” Instead she made another nurse administer I.V. antibiotics at the apartment, and the look on that woman's face when she saw the femurs and ferrets was priceless. By August I weighed 130 pounds, with one low point being called a junkie behind my back while I walked home from the ER. As embarrassing as that was, it was nothing compared to the night the fevers spiked and I hallucinated that three masked hunters in camouflage were standing at the foot of the bed. Trying to remain coherent, I repeated, “I don't want to die like this” aloud until morning arrived and I could phone someone.

Then my father gave me le Carré's George Smiley trilogy, and it was a revelation. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was great; The Honorable Schoolboy broke my heart so thoroughly that I still haven't been able to reread it; but best of all was Smiley's People. Being transported from that miserable sickbed to the travails of British spy George Smiley as he followed the contours of his own agonized morality towards a confrontation with KGB nemesis Karla was beyond description. I felt as if Smiley's obsessive delving matched my own gaunt musings, with both of us offered an opportunity to come to grips with our worst enemy. If George Smiley could force himself to dredge clues from the alcoholic wreckage of “Mother Russia” Connie Sachs, then I ignore the Nurse Grays of the world, talk aloud until sunrise if that's what it took, and not die like this.

I've never felt young again since that summer, and like Smiley when Karla crossed the bridge from East to West Berlin, the cost of the ‘victory’ remains debatable. All I know is that when I was falling into an abyss Smiley's People provided a way to claw back to the rim. My only regret is that I never bought any of Matt's maniacal sculptures because broken bones and tractor parts tell the summertime blues as well as anything else.

Tobias Seamon is author of the novel, The Magician's Study, and Loosestrife Along the River Styx, a poetry chapbook. He recently wrote and directed the short film Amerikan Partizan, which premiered at the 2007 Edwood Filmfest. He also is a regular contributor to The Morning News.

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