Disappointment of the Week: Dead or Alive

A daily books blog, particularly one written by someone with a financial incentive to tout books, must occasionally be bold enough to inform its readers even when doing so might cost the store a sale.

If you read enough (and I do), you’re bound to be disappointed. At the store, we preview books months in advance, and we have to make our buying decisions based on reputation, recommendation, and retail appeal.

Dead or Alive

Clancy on the wrong "tract"

So when we were informed that Tom Clancy was bringing back his characters from Rainbow Six, it was pretty easy to get excited.

John Clark and Ding Chavez are finally rotating out of Rainbow Six, the international covert operations unit created under Jack Ryan’s aegis. On the way to the airport with their families, presumably to return to Washington and be unceremoniously retired, Clark and Chavez are diverted for one last Rainbow mission – the rescue of hostages at Sweden’s embassy to Libya.

Meanwhile, back in the States, young Jack Ryan, Jr. is hard at work trying to find the Emir (read: Osama bin Laden) along with his mates at The Campus, an off-the books intelligence analysis (and operations) firm operating in the open as an investment trading house.

Of course, now ex-president Jack Ryan makes cameo appearances along the way, but even Clancy can’t turn a former president into a covert operative. So Ryan fils, Clark, and Chavez are the heroes in this 950-page relaunch of the Ryan saga.

Clancy, who has become more of a corporation than a writer, enlisted the help of Grant Blackwood to pen this doorstop. As much as I enjoyed Clancy over the years – and that includes most of his brand extensions outside the Jack Ryan books – this book represents a serious decline from the days of The Sum of All Fears and Patriot Games.

Clancy, who is still well-connected, has become a bit of a public fascist on the subject of U.S. intelligence, and it has overtaken his ability to tell a story. If you’re fan of “anything goes” when it comes to fighting terrorists, you may not be distracted by the joyful way his characters engage in torture. In fact, it is clear that Clancy wrote this book with you in mind, because he certainly lost a fan here with all his gratuitous jabs at fictional politicians and bureaucrats with whom he disagrees.

As a sop to so-called America Haters (see: Constitution-lovers), these characters always engage in at least a moment of consideration before breaking civilized codes of conduct. Fortunately for the story, their qualms at illegalities are overcome. It doesn’t hurt that Clancy has created a drawer full of “blank pardons” signed by Jack Ryan when he was in office, and the authors assure us it’s all “legal.”

But rather than argue with his politics, let’s talk about his writing. Clancy, who was no spring chicken when he first became famous, is too old to be trying so hard to be hip. He drops in “pop culture” references in hopes of establishing a believable timeline, then explains them to us. Tom, we don’t need them explained – that’s why they are “popular” – they’re part of our culture. Clearly, they are not part of yours. With all of Uncle Fuddy’s drop-in, hip references, at times the book seems like some kind of Mad-Lib construction by an octogenarian distracted by TMZ.

Any time you have a major best-selling author flubbing simple grammar and word choices, you know he phoned it in for the paycheck. Don’t believe me? On multiple occasions, the characters are faced with crises where they simply don’t have enough data or tools to be adequately sure, so they just “make due.” Make due? Really?

Clark and Chavez, trailing a suspected terrorist by car, slip off the road to hide from time to time, which is OK for the story, but jarring when we’re told they drove down a “dusty tract.” That and the previous boner recur throughout the book when 1 simple read-through could have prevented the diminution of the text.

You can tell when something is a typo and you can tell when the author intended to make those word choices. It’s not credible to believe an editor changed the author’s manuscript to use make due for make do, or tract for track.

In short, Clancy went off the “tract” and his fans will just have to “make due” and find a new perennial thriller writer. I’ll suggest Stephen Hunter, OK?

I have no current intention to offer up a weekly, Sunday “Disappointment of the Week.” It’s more likely that we’ll make Sundays a potpourri of book alerts, reviews, and news tidbits. But for today, here you go – our stinker of the week.

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