- - Wednesday, June 25, 2014

By Ray Keating
CreateSpace, $13.99, 272 pages

How do you handle being a former CIA adrenaline junkie turned pastor?

Ray Keating’s latest novel, “The River,” takes you on an intriguing summer ride from Langley to the Vatican with Stephen Grant, a former CIA agent who leaves his intelligence career behind and becomes a pastor of St. Mary’s Lutheran Church on East Long Island.

Mr. Keating’s storytelling is so lifelike that I almost thought I had worked with him when I was at Langley. Like the fictitious pastor, I actually spent 20 years working for the U.S. intelligence community, and once I started reading “The River,” I had to keep reading because it was so well-crafted and easy to follow and because it depicted a personal struggle that I knew all too well. I simply could not put it down.

What Ian Fleming’s 007 series has probably done for ex-MI-6 agents and Tom Clancy has done for retired CIA officers, Mr. Keating has done for the minority of former CIA agents who have served their country by working in the intelligence community, but now wish to serve God.

To me as a pastor, one of the interesting points of this story was the accuracy in the complexity of serving God as a Christian leader today. Apart from the espionage and action-oriented references to guns and tactics, there were real life, tear-jerking moments in a couple of instances that reminded me of some struggles that ministers face in sharing loss, grieving families and anger.

The book also highlighted my own inner search for truth in having made the transition from being a former active member of the U.S. intelligence community to being a Lutheran pastor. Undeniably, “thou shalt not kill” is an important part of the Bible, but during my own spiritual journey, those words took on a heightened level of contemplation.

Mr. Keating’s writing does not gloss over how things are and the responses we often hear, and that made the story richer for me because it wasn’t neat and sexy like a shaken martini in a James Bond thriller. It was a great blend of so many elements that actually happen in the intelligence community.

“The River” takes us to the core of moral principle; that is the battle between good versus evil, right versus wrong and the differences between one’s past and present lives, leaving the reader in deep reflection about the blurred lines that inspire inner conflict in anyone who has a past that they must reconcile with.

After all, in real life, the pieces rarely fit as neatly as we would like them to, and contrary to the old adage, time does not always allow all the hurt to heal before we get hit with something else. That is the kind of realism the reader is privy to in “The River,” because Mr. Keating weaves a convincing tale. After all, we are all seeking answers of some kind, whether they are to questions or merely settling on what is comfortable.

Mr. Keating also allows you to discover how each of his characters tick in a style and tone reminiscent of some of the best loved books of all time. The details and descriptions of “The River” brought me back into the secret corridors of the agency, trying to recall who the chief of station was as I read. Then, I wondered what operations were going on.

This riveting page-turner reminded me of some of my own experiences, such as the time I was training with a SEAL team that just happened to be at the facility I was working at as a member of the firearms-training team. I couldn’t help but wonder which of the nondescript young men I’d met back then would have become Mr. Keating’s Stephen Grant.

Which of the guys that I have run with, been bested by and traded insults with in the typical Navy versus Marine banter would it have been?

As soon as the story progressed, I knew this guy. The more I read, the more I understood him. A real-life version of Pastor Grant and I would have been friends. We would have commiserated on politics and poor choices of our youth, and surely, we would have debated church doctrines.

The book was so rich in content and story that I expected the meaning to be connected to one of the songs by Garth Brooks, Joni Mitchell or even Bruce Springsteen. All three artists of different genres have songs about “The River,” and the reader can’t be sure which one until the end of the story.

Many spy-novel authors try to appeal to members of the intelligence community as well as the average American looking for a little international intrigue and James Bond excitement. With Mr. Keating’s Pastor Grant, he has touched upon a small fraternity within the intelligence community of those who have wanted to serve both God and country — but necessarily in that order.

Kenneth V. Blanchard is a former CIA analyst and Baptist pastor.

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