John le Carré is about to make a lot of people very angry. The man who began writing rueful, coolheaded spy fiction at the height of the Cold War and then redefined the genre after it ended is boiling mad at the United States and England about what one of his characters calls a ''colonial oil war dressed up as a crusade for Western life and liberty...[that] exploited America's post-9/11 psychopathy.'' And the author of ''The Spy Who Came In From the Cold'' has cannily chosen as the vehicle for his rage -- what else? -- a stunningly timely spy novel, the conclusion of which was fired off last June. The ideologically like-minded will rejoice. And a generation of men (and they are mostly men) who look forward to the new le Carré as if he's just Tom Clancy with a thesaurus are going to feel as if, all these years, he's been a double agent in their midst.
They should have been reading more carefully. Le Carré has always been closer to Graham Greene than Clancy; the pitched battles in most of his novels aren't between good and evil, but between nuance and zealotry, between human frailty and geopolitical dogma. And he knows that writing well is the best revenge. Critics of this novel will claim that le Carré's politics have hurt his artistry. Don't they wish. Absolute Friends -- which for most of its length concentrates not on the Iraq war but on 30 years in the lives of two classic le Carré agents, one a troubled German ideologue, the other a feckless British wanderer -- is told with bracing vigor and clarity; his people are vibrantly alive; his understanding of the world has rarely been keener; his language is lean but perfectly detailed.
The way that the lives of these absolute friends (the title is a double joke) crash into the Iraq war is astonishing for many reasons, not least because it seems such a natural extension of the world of troubled alliances and untrustable rationalizations that le Carré has been dissecting since Kennedy was President. Only in the faltering final chapters does he put his storytelling too nakedly in the service of his fury. But by then, we're already agog at the skill and subversion with which he's used contemporary realpolitik -- and his disgust at it -- to fuel a novel that stands among his best.