R.I.P. OCTOBER 2, 2013
The easiest point to make about Tom Clancy, who died on Tuesday at the age of 66, is that he was a mediocre writer who penned books with noxious political messages. But he was more interesting than that, even if only as a totemic cultural figure. I haven't read any of his nonfictional output, which mostly deals with military matters, especially the physical details of American military hardware. (Sample title: Submarine: A Guided Tour Inside a Nuclear Warship.) But Clancy will be best remembered for the series of books he wrote about Jack Ryan, the C.I.A. agent from his creator's hometown of Baltimore who eventually becomes president of the United States. (Don't ask.) Four of the books were eventually turned into pretty effective Hollywood movies, which starred (in order) Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford (twice), and Ben Affleck. A fifth, with Chris Pine as Ryan, comes out over Christmas.
The first thing to note about the Jack Ryan novels, and one of the things that made them notable as middlebrow fiction, was their sheer bulk. This no doubt accounted for some of the pride I felt in finishing them at age 16. To even try and describe the structure of a book like Clear and Present Danger would be a feat, but if I managed to do so you might think that I was outlining Middlemarch. I doubt that Clancy intended his books to ape great, sprawling 19th century novels, but structurally they did. Or at least they did until the last several hundred pages, when everything would either be wrapped up too hastily or not at all. Clancy was abysmal at plotting, and these stories would never come together in any really satisfying way.
Each strand would introduce you to an impressive American male, skilled at his military or intelligence duties, well versed in the technical details of his mission, and committed to his military hardware. Some of them (like Ryan) were brainier than others, but they all seemed to exist in the same milieu. Still, it was rather bold that Ryan would sometimes not appear for hundreds of pages. Supporting characters would be sketched at great length (if not in great depth). Obscure international hotspots would be given their brief moment in the sun, although Clancy never showed much desire to learn anything deep or complex about other cultures.
Some of Clancy's early books were strictly Cold War thrillers, but, to his credit, the diminishment and eventual end of the cold war didn't seem to cramp his style. Patriot Games (1987) was about Irish extremists who threaten the British royal family, Clear and Present Danger (1989) is about Latin American drug cartels, and The Sum of All Fears (1991) concerns Islamic terrorists trying to start nuclear war. (The movie adaptation of the latter, which was made after 9/11, changed the villains to neo-Nazis.) By the time of Executive Orders (1996), Ryan seems to be taking on half the world's villains. (In this one, he is serving as president.)
But even if Clancy could see past the Cold War, he could never see past his rather limited political views. This is why it was alarming that Clancy was taken seriously as a military and political analyst, and invited on talk shows to give his opinion of serious subjects. (Charlie Rose's intended audience is presumably not 16-year-olds.) Dan Quayle, in his infinite wisdom, once stated, "They're not just novels. They're read as the real thing."
Clancy's politics can best be described as Rambo-esque: The blame for American military defeat can best be laid at the feet of pointy-headed intellectuals and the media; America would be a better and stronger country if we would just let our tough guys take care of business; America is a great place, but government bureaucrats hold us back. The key difference was that Rambo was somewhat of a counter-cultural figure, with his long hair and alternative lifestyle. Clancy's heroes are basically boring, straight, all-Americans. (Jack Ryan is jokingly referred to as a "boy-scout".)
I recently read a quote from Clancy where he stated, "The U.S. military is us. There is no truer representation of a country than the people that it sends into the field to fight for it." What his books argue, however, is essentially the opposite of this statement. The military and intelligence services are as superb as one could wish for, but the rest of American society has let them down. Actually, American society would be a lot stronger if it were only 16-year-olds who thought this. The popularity of Clancy and his books show that this sort of thinking is disturbingly widespread.