Monday, August 25, 2003


How bad do you think Tom Clancy misses the Cold War? Clancy came into our world as the perfect Reagan-era dramatist. His early books, most famously The Hunt For Red October (1984) and Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988), captured the cat-and-mouse intrigue that previous spy novels had already pioneered, most famously Ian Fleming’s James Bond series. However, with his bent towards large-scale military strategy, Clancy helped to integrate cloak-and-dagger with submarines and satellites. As quiet as the Cold War was presumed to be, Clancy’s novels attempted to draw back the curtain and suggest that the action might be happening in more places than dark alleys in Prague and instead tried to take the reader into the White House, Kremlin, under the Atlantic, etc. In doing so, Clancy arguably spearheaded the modern military-techno thriller, now a much imitated genre unto itself.

It is beyond debate that Clancy has always been a devout conservative in his ideology – his books have always been filled with various degrees of right-wing jingoism, especially in his pro-military stance but despite this, he has appealed to people across the political spectrum. That has little to do with his politics and far more to do with his compelling gifts as a storyteller.

Clancy's trademark has been his ability to describe complex military strategies and technologies with a fetishist's eye but more impressive was his touch for the personal. Clancy's invention of CIA analyst Jack Ryan (played in Hollywood by the unlikely troika of Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and most recently, Ben Affleck) was the antithesis of Fleming's Bond - lacking the British spy's unruffled confidence or suave sensibilities. Ryan was a soccer dad spook, a stand-up guy with a white collar 9-5 who just happened to be gifted in the field of covert intelligence. That unwillingly thrust him into situation after situation where he's forced to defend his life, the lives of his family or, on occasion, the civilized world as we know it. Unlike the seemingly immortal and unflappable Bond though, Ryan betrayed vulnerabilities, prone to outbursts of frustration and anger and severe self-doubt, especially when the safety of others was at stake. That said, you knew Ryan would never fold under pressure - he was less sexy international man of mystery and more like your neighborhood fireman.

This gave his early books a human dimension that was lacking in most of the other spy novels that came before Clancy. He had all the military bells and whistles to keep it sexy, but it was Ryan story arc at the heart of narrative – we wanted to see how he would cope in the most difficult situations because we were meant, on some level, to identify with Ryan’s quotidian humanity as a reflection of ourselves.

Let’s be real though – Clancy wasn’t writing The Bridges of Madison County either and he benefited greatly from the tensions of the Cold War era to give his stories dramatic, mysterious storylines. But by the late ‘80s, the USSR, in real life, tumbled and suddenly, Clancy (and we) found ourselves in a mono-power world. Great for America's geopolitical position. Bad for spy drama.

Much to his credit, Clancy rode out these changes better than most might have expected. He did two things over the course of his succeeding books - he both delved deeper into the political wranglings behind the scenes - less on the men with guns, more on the leaders who commanded those men. For example, Clear and Present Danger (1989) traded in Soviet oligarchies for Columbian drug cartels but he was equally committed to exposing corruption within Washington's inner circles.

Sum of All Fears (1991) ratcheted it up another notch, this time turning to what was inevitable in a post-Cold War world: the Middle East. In this book, rogue Islamic terrorists conspire to explode a nuclear bomb at the Superbowl in the hopes of derailing the Middle East peace process - apparently, Clancy didn't realize that a bus bomb would have been sufficient.

The book represented an important and somewhat ambivalent leap forward in Clancy's series. Before, his death tolls numbered, at most into the hundreds (if even that), and despite the larger geopolitical landscape that he set his stories in, tragedy tended to exist at the individual level, such as in Patriot Games (1987) where Ryan and his family are stalked by a squad of vengeful (and you guessed it!) rogue IRA terrorists. With Sum of All Fears, Clancy decided to incinerate Denver's Mile High Stadium in a mushroom cloud on Superbowl Sunday, killing tens of thousands of Americans. With that one move, Clancy decided to make his tragedies national but despite the new horrificness of his proportions, the move also strangely abstracted things from the personal to the statistical. Nonetheless, Clancy did a brilliant job in keeping the action tense by not just focusing on the terrorist element but also showing Ryan under attack by distrusting enemies within the Presidential administration he's supposed to be working for.

However, now that Ryan had crossed the Rubicon into full-scale catastrophes, he saw fit to advance even further. His next book, the uneven Debt of Honor (1994) recasts the WWII Pacific Theater to modern times as Japan, suffering from desperate economic straits, decides to launch an attack on American forces, including the firing of a tactical nuclear weapon against a naval ship. On the one hand, this allowed Clancy to give his play-by-play at new levels of warfare but in the midst, the human element was decidedly muted and the action strangely less intense. The book, however, does allow Clancy to make one play - however unlikely - which sees Ryan being installed as Vice President at the end of the novel.

This leads directly into Executive Orders (1996), which, to my standards, is the most satisfying of Clancy's post-80s books (and a personal favorite). The book opens with what was then unimaginable - a disgruntled Japanese pilot (left over from Debt of Honor) decides to exact revenge by flying a fuel-loaded 747 into the Capitol Building during a Joint Session of Congress. Mind you - this is several years before 9/11 and few have passed up commenting on Clancy's macabre prescience. With practically the entire U.S. government now dead, it's up to the newly-installed President Jack Ryan to put the country back together but he has to do it while defending against (count 'em): a kidnapping attempt on his toddler daughter, a biological attack on the U.S. with a modified Ebola virus, a potential assassin mole on his Secret Service detail and the attempt by a unified Iran/Iraq to invade Saudi Arabia. (One has to briefly comment that the book also opens with the assassination of the President of Iraq, who, while never mentioned by name, is clearly Saddam Hussein, yet another eerily prescient storyline on Clancy's part).

The book nears 1,000 pages and Clancy needs all of them to make his complex narrative come together but he pulls it off brilliantly. What works about Executive Actions is that Clancy finds the perfect rhythm between the fast-moving events at the individual, national and international level. Each chapter frenetically jumps between Ryan struggling to run a damaged nation in the midst of viperous politics while fending off the machinations of an Islamic government bent on crippling America. In one fell swoop, well, ok, several fell swoops, Clancy finds time to comment on everything from the intrusive media, to the tangle of public policy, to the science of communicable disease, to the diplomatic house of mirrors, to battlefield tactics and technology and then back to the interior life of a President under the microscope. While the plot of the book gives Ryan plenty of opportunities to make Reagan (and now Ahnauld)-esque speeches about the rightness of the American way of life, he so skillfully builds the pressure in the story that by the time Ryan is ready to let loose the dogs of war, even the most devout pacificist is tempted to cheer the troops along.

It's then surprising that Clancy should fail so miserably with his next Ryan installment - The Bear and the Dragon (2000) which, for all practical matters, retells Debt of Honor except this time, it's Russia vs. China instead of the U.S. vs. Japan. Besides the redundancy of the plot, The Bear and the Dragon falters heavily by failing to keep the most compelling elements of Executive Decisions in play (namely by focusing on Ryan's tumultuous Presidency) and instead just turns into another exercise of tanks blowing up other tanks with all the intrigue and passion of a game of tiddlywinks. One also senses that Clancy is losing his touch for crafting compelling individuals. Ryan feels flatter and less interesting in this outing, there are no side heroes to really focus on, unlike FBI agent Pat O’Day, a key character in Executive Orders that has a strong storyline in that book but is utterly – and unfortunately – absent from this one.

Clancy attempted to return the focus back to the individual with two side books that get sandwiched between his Ryan novels, focusing on CIA enforcer John Clark - a prominent though enigmatic figure in almost all of the Ryan series. These two books, Without Remose (1993) and Rainbow Six (1997), fail to return Clancy's craft back to his Cold War days of The Hunt For Red October and play more like the successful video game series named after Rainbow Six - mechanical, repetitive and lacking dimension. For example, in Rainbow Six, rogue terrorists (again, but this time American white supremacists) decide to unleash another Ebola-like virus upon the American masses, prompting everyone who bothered to read Executive Actions a year earlier to ask: "wait, haven't we seen this before?" and indeed, we have. Clark was actually far more intriguing when we knew less about him and his two books pale next to the best of the Ryan series.

(*Note: I never did read Clancy's most recent novel prior to his new one, Red Rabbit (2002) which was a prequel in the Ryan series, taking us back to his younger days, starting out in the CIA.)

With his newest book, The Teeth of the Tiger, Clancy shows that he really has spent his creative energies and now he's reduced to penning parodies of his own material. Teeth is meant to open up a new story arc - having exhausted both Ryan and Clark's - by focusing on the "next" generation, namely Ryan's own son (conveniently though confusingly also named Jack Ryan), a budding intelligence analyst just like his old man, plus Jack Jr.'s cousins Brian and Dominic Caruso, who happen to be highly-regarded Marine officers and FBI agents respectively.

The enemy? Rogue Islamic terrorists (ha - if Clancy was smart, it would have been rogue NORTH KOREAN terrorists, chalk one up for the James Bond series for being one step ahead with the Korean plotline around Die Another Day). It should be noted that this is Clancy's first book that addresses a post-9/11 reality and he very conspicuously frames the story with the "new" America in the backdrop by dropping heavy-handed comments about Cantor Fitzgerald executives "riding down 96 floors to sea level one Tuesday morning" or Islamic terrorists joking about "flight classes."

When 9/11 happened, Clancy became an instant pundit on national media, people presuming that just because he somehow predicted a terrorist tactic of flying airplanes into public buildings, he had something intelligent to say about national policy. Whether that now makes any sense at all in hindsight, it should be said someone like Clancy especially would have been shaken by the events of 9/11. Yet he plays this out in his book in the most banal and surprisingly reactionary ways, lacking any of the nuance that he once showed in his work.

In Teeth, the Caruso brothers (fraternal twins) are recruited by a mysterious, non-governmental agency known only as The Campus, to be hired killers tasked with eliminating terrorist threats around the world - sort of like what Israel does when they missile Hamas leaders except the Caruso twins use cloak-and-dagger poison pens (literally). Meanwhile, Jack Jr. takes up where his dad once did, analyzing intelligence data to figure out which terrorist organization pulled off a coordinated attack on four American malls, killing over 100 shoppers. One is tempted to comment on how the mall acts as another, albeit less grand symbol of American capitalism like the former WTC. However, Clancy’s story is far too superficially told to really be able to flush out such grandiose plays of metaphor.

Teeth is all bland cliches instead. This is now the third book in which Clancy has attempted to portray Islamic fundamentalism and it still plays out with all the sophistication of a talk radio rant. Terms like "infidels" and "Great Satan" and "holy martyrs" are liberally strewn about with little thought and Clancy largely just mimeographs the portrait of Islamic terrorism that people have seen a thousand times over in silly Hollywood movies or other pulp fiction.

For example, Clancy keeps writing that America is so hated by this Islamic cartel because of our support of Israel, never for a moment entertaining that there might be other larger, geopolitical issues at stake. Compared to Sum of All Fears, which actually tried to capture the complexities of the Middle East conflict with some sensitivity and nuance, Teeth reads like a 1940s pulp propaganda comic book. America is unshakably righteous, an element that represents a reversal for Clancy who was willing to delve into national contradictions in previous books. Presumably, with America being the victim of 9/11 (don't talk blowback to Clancy!), anything now goes and we can do no wrong. This is all the greenlight The Campus needs to start sending out the twins on some wet work assignments.

Everyone's flat in this book, not just the one-dimensional terrorists but also the three protagonists. The Carusos have momentary bouts of conscience, grappling with the fact that they're essentially committing premeditated murder in the form of tactical assassinations, but they're incredibly boring to follow - a team-up between Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Segal would offer more excitement. Likewise, Jack Jr. retreads his father's footsteps and having read all of Clancy's previous books, I'm not clear on why I need the sequel already. As the Ryan scion, Jack Jr. lacks any of the gravitas his father offered and he needs something – a wife, a girlfriend, hell, a puppy, to flush out his personality more. Unlike the limited but charged figure of Dr. Kathy Ryan - eye doctor, two-term First Lady, and a good marital foil to play Jack Sr. off of, the only women in this entire book are hookers. Seriously. (Equally perturbing is the fact that Admiral Robbie Jackson, later turned Vice President, one of the very few black characters in any of Clancy's novels has already been assassinated by the beginning of Teeth, killed by an aging Ku Klux Klan member who was threatened by the possibility that Jackson would become the first Black President. It's incredibly lazy storytelling, not to mention ideologically dubious.)

Just as bad as everything else, the writing is horrendous. At less than 500 pages, this is a much shorter book than what Clancy has been writing yet it still feels too long as the author devotes too much time to endless pontifications by the assembled characters, trying to figure out if they're doing the "right" thing. While the men in this book should be struggling with these issues, they're foregone conclusions any ways - you already know where Clancy is headed once the wind-bagging begins. For a book about cat-and-mouse assassins going up against dangerous terrorists, there's very little actual action in the book. In what has to be a most ironic coincidence, the Carusos kill their targets with a poison that induces fatal paralysis - apparently, they stuck the book with the same venom.

While the book doesn't end on a cliffhanger, it clearly points to a yet-to-be-published sequel as Clancy is trying to spark interest in a new story arc presumably centered on these three men. However, with a debut outing so dismal, it's hard to imagine anyone really getting excited with a continuation - you wish Clancy would just trash this new series altogether and find the senior Jack Ryan some post-retirement trouble to dig himself out of. Or perhaps it's Clancy himself who needs to cash in his pension and take a break. At a time where a military thriller would have to compete with the all-too-real headlines of today, Clancy's latest book flounders in a puddle of its own irrelevance. Teeth of the Tiger proves to be his most toothless novel ever.