In the spring of 1972, Step Bronstad steps into line at a Military Entrance Processing Station, "surrounded by dozens of other young men about to begin an odyssey that would likely place most of us in the war-torn jungles of Vietnam." When he is hustled into an interrogation room, forced to answer questions about his troubled and violent past, the young man from a Pacific Northwest logging town must choose between marching into the throat of a war that he might not survive, facing conviction and imprisonment for the crimes of his youth, or electing to become the government's errand boy, running covert and dangerous missions for the CIA.
While the plot might smack of the traditional CIA henchman-with-a-heart-of-gold story, "Errand Runner"—the debut novel of Steven Berg, a Bend resident since 1980—offers much more than espionage and political thrills. Berg, who like his protagonist, was born in North Dakota and moved west as a young man, manages to weave together one man's personal struggle with the transformative historical events of 1970s global terrorism into an action-packed romp through the United States, England, and eventually into the middle of the Israeli hostage crisis at the Munich Olympic Games and beyond.
What sets this book apart from the run-of-the-mill spy jaunt is Berg's surprisingly intimate perspective, born out through the first person narrative of young Step. It's not often that you see such different worlds intertwined—that of an ordinary if hapless youngster, within the complex world of international anti-terrorism—in a way that doesn't seem disingenuous and forced. Yet here we find a fresh and interesting voice, experiencing the horror and scale of what he asked to participate in, that is far more convincing than the deadpan narration of a Bourne or Bond. Berg's use of humor, which might seem at first to work against the serious nature of his character's dilemmas, is a welcome shift, and forces the reader toward a more dynamic and multi-dimensional reading experience.
What is it about the espionage novel that is so compelling? Perhaps we can partially explain the appeal by the fact that stories about spies celebrate disguise, dissimulation, and cunning, and go beyond the limits of the law, which is understood to be insufficiently protective or slow in its workings. But there are disadvantages as well; the spy is never fully innocent, just as his situations are never transparent. Berg doesn't shy away from this ambiguous ethical knot. In an era of increasing terrorist violence and uncertainty, Berg pursues here a survey of what has come before, which he himself witnessed first hand. "Experiencing the Olympic massacre in Munich was deeply scarring," Berg says. "It was a worthwhile but psychologically jarring experience translating these events and emotions to print." While the reader will likely be similarly jarred, conspiracy theorists and fans of the can't-put-it-down spy thriller genre won't be disappointed.