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Revisiting the books of male adolescence – Part 3

In the third part of his series on revisiting the literature of male adolescence Simon Akam moves from Biggles to the American thriller writer Tom Clancy….

Now Tom Clancy. A change of tack in every sense. ‘Red Storm Rising’ is a tome, 830 pages in all. The date is present day, so actually about as old as I am, for the novel was published in 1986. The canvas is expansive; a wholesale, though non-nuclear, war between east and west, a thought experiment in violent conflict betwixt the Warsaw Pact and NATO writ large. The author is a former insurance salesman.

In many ways too – on reacquaintance – ‘Red Storm Rising’ is also a very bad book. An excoriating Christopher Hitchens essay from the New York Review of Books in 1996 does much of the heavy lifting of what can, with only a slight smirk, be called Clancy ‘criticism.’  Hitchens damns, among other failings, “two recurring Clancy tropes… his matey populism and his deference and snobbery.”  For those unfamiliar with that raging, and highly recommended screed I will outline Clancy’s other faults here.

First, serial numbers and abbreviations. Perhaps these are a necessary adjunct to the production of the techno-thriller, but they do become wearisome rapidly. Must we, Mr Clancy, be told repeatedly that it is an “E2-C” surveillance aircraft, an “AN-22” transport aircraft, or an “ASAT” missile? Perhaps we must. But I do not want to know.

Likewise, I would argue it is simply unacceptable in a purported work of fiction to refer to characters solely by the condensed acronyms of their positions in a military command hierarchy. To do so strengthens the already robust impression that these individuals are not in fact human but rather simply stanchions on which to hang the hardware, the true stuffing of the techno-thriller.

Only in the very death throes of ‘Red Storm’ (when the West has won, just to throw in that profoundly surprising spoiler) do we learn the name of SACEUR (for the uninitiated Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Eisenhower’s old job). Thus far he has remained just SACEUR. Perhaps we haven’t been told because Eugene really is not much of a name for a warlord, but for the love of god Clancy why?

A prefatory note assures us that ‘Red Storm Rising’ began with an encounter between Clancy and a certain Larry Bond at a war games convention in 1982– frankly not an auspicious zone for initial literary inspiration. Credit – or perhaps it should be responsibility – for the subsequent novel, Clancy tells us in a preface, should be shared equally between Bond and himself, though magnanimously only Clancy’s name appears on the cover. The broader point here though is given this proven willingness to collaborate – with, of all things, the designer of a board game – why did Clancy not simply subcontract out the dialogue in his novel? To, perhaps, Tom Stoppard? As he did not we have to deal instead with enormities like “You’re strong and you’re brave… I know you love me Michael.”

Repeated and deliberate turns away from moral ambiguity – itself the stuffing of greater fiction – is also characteristic of Clancy’s work. He writes in a world of moral certainties, Manichean good and evil. When a Moscow-based journalist, named with what passes for nomenclatural flair here, Patrick Flynn, collaborates with British intelligence the act is one of simple patriotism (“For the hundredth time, the Reuters correspondent blessed his decision to cooperate with the SIS”). In the hands of, for example, John Le Carré, we would have had instead a gradual sell out of personal principle.

Yet the nadir of Clancy’s prose is elsewhere. Indeed these nadirs are twin, like the humps of a Bactrian camel held inverted by its ankles. The first is the authors’ penchant for catapulting wimpy rear echelon types oddly reminiscent of Tom Clancy himself to martial glory. In ‘Red Storm Rising’ a lanky air force meteorologist gets to stomp around Soviet-occupied Iceland committing acts of derring-do, while a naval reservist called Bob Toland elevates himself to an oracular authority on Soviet intentions, trusted by admirals and admired by veteran salts. Given Clancy’s own plump civilian status it is all too easy to read these types as a gushing exercise in authorial wish-fulfilment.

The other nadir is, if anything, worse. When he attempts – and mercifully such actions are relatively rare – to chronicle the inner life of one of his so-called characters his favourite trope is the rhetorical question, often italicised, a device of ground–breaking laziness. This failing could be illustrated with a quotation, but it is more telling to use a composition instead. In the following paragraph I will attempt to distil the experience of reading Clancy (as an adult) in the style of Clancy himself.

“Could this dialogue really be this wrenchingly awful? He thought. Are we really expected to believe that one of the protagonists is called COMSUBLANT? Would he ever see his wife and kids on Chesapeake Bay again or will he have to spend purgatorial years toiling through dross like this, punctuated only by the occasional hard right assertion or cod-aphorism? Oh well, staff officers can sleep after the war.”

It is fun, this Clancy bashing, but it is a cheap kind of fun with undertones of cruelty, like mocking the obese or cock fighting. It is a kind of denial too. A denial of the gripping nature of the work. Christopher Hitchens could excoriate Clancy in better faith than I, having never read him as a teenager (a chronological impossibility, when Clancy’s prentice work ‘The Hunt for Red October’ was published in 1984 Hitchens was already in his mid thirties. I was unborn).

Counterpointed against my own waspish slights must lie the fact that I read in youth not solely ‘Red Storm Rising’ but a host of Clancy’s other novels. But more than that, not only did Clancy grip me at 14, but it did not fail to grip me at 26. I kept on through the 800 odd pages, negotiating the reefs of atrocious dialogue and catalogue-sized consignments of serial numbers, as though propelled by an invisible force, like gravity. I fell through the book. The experience was less grim than wading through some of the other texts at stake in this essay too – Oh Willard Price, waiting in the wings, confident of your merits, listen to my apostrophe and quake at the prospect of my forthcoming rage. That is the Clancy paradox; on adult reacquaintance its faults are undeniably clear. However, its narrative drive does not dissolve.

Simon Akam is Reuters’ correspondent in Sierra Leone. His website is www.simonakam.com and he has also written these which we think are excellent:  The Long and Winding Road (on Land Rover parts in Africa) and Stars of the Stalls (on second hand book shopping).

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