Blackford Oakes, the derring-do spy hero of this and three earlier novels, might have been designed by the PR chief at Yale, so perfect is his blend of Ivy League charm, recklessness, and ruggedly handsome good looks.
Oakes, recruited at Skull and Bones for the CIA, bounds through the pages of William F. Buckley's latest entertainment with beautiful women clinging to his ankles, having a hugely good time, and shaping postwar foreign policy in the bargain. It's enough to give all-cotton button-downs a bad name.
Fortunately, the ennui induced by this Preppie Adonis vanishes whenever President Eisenhower strides onto the page, alternately beaming, swearing, and describing his golf game to less-than-rapt senior aides.
''Marco Polo If You Can'' is a decidedly unstraightforward spy novel. Set at the turn of the '60s, its plot begins with Oakes, cashiered at the end of his last outing, engineering designs for a proposed FDR Memorial. (A Buckley joke. More on that later.)
Re-recruited into the fold for a special assignment, ''Blackie,'' as he is familiarly known, dashes about the world in pursuit of a ''mole'' who has penetrated the National Security Council. He dashes to Berlin. He dashes to Arizona. It must be hard to dash with all those women clinging to you. It is giving little away to say that Oakes ends up crash-landing a U-2 near the Sino-Soviet border, a la Gary Powers, as the book builds toward its climax: the Paris summit of 1960.
Oakes's escapades are interspersed with appearances by actual historical figures: Khrushchev, tipsy, admonishing Ike; Ike, tweaking Adlai Stevenson's pride; Dean Acheson, being patrician. When these men appear, the book's all-fictional characters seem a bit insipid. Ike et al. just have more interesting things to say. This use of imaginary conversations among the high and mighty is what makes Buckley's book different from run-of-the-mill thrillers; he is perhaps the only American spy author who uses domestic politics to provide real intrigue.
And, of course, it is domestic politics described from a distinct point of view. Asked for some memorable FDR quotations to adorn a memorial, Oakes thinks awhile. ''Well, there's the one about balancing the budget,'' he says. ''Then, there's the one about . . . er, our boys will never fight in foreign wars.'' At least he doesn't propose titling the monument ''That Man in the White House.''
William F. twists little political points from all his characters, with mischievous glee. A KGB agent reminds his superior, ''General, in the United States they don't make secret arrests. At least, I never heard of one.'' Oakes, alone one evening, ''sat down in the little armchair and began to read Buckley's 'Up From Liberalism.' But his mind wandered. Hardly Buckley's fault.''
The spy genre benefits richly from Buckley's use of domestic politics. It might be nice, however, if Oakes had just one minor flaw. A weak chin, perhaps? A tiny bald spot? A weakness for fast-food burritos? At the very least, he might have attended a state university.