From time to time I step outside my comfort zone in light reading. I have to confess that this is in many respects dependent on what I find at the local thrift shop that costs a buck, but that merely makes it easier to try something out. I have actually read Tom Clancy before; not what you might think is up my alley, because my alley is lined with old mysteries and science fiction, but his earlier work is rather masculinist and interesting if you can buy into that world-view. I’ve also enjoyed some of the films made from his work, which is usually hundreds of pages longer than need be and written in a kind of utilitarian prose that has a subtext of “Yes, it’s a cliche, and I don’t mind in the slightest, because I know you’ll understand what I’m getting at. There’s no foo-foo pretty writing HERE, I can tell you.”
The Teeth of the Tiger (ISBN -0399-15079-X, published 2003) is a later story in what Wikipedia calls the “Jack Ryan universe”. It chronicles some adventures of Jack Ryan, Jr., who was as yet unborn in earlier works but who is now in his 20s and working at a low level in the espionage game after his father, a former U.S. President, has retired. He and two of his cousins take on some Middle Eastern terrorists who do things like shoot innocent children in shopping malls. The Ryan family accomplishes this by having an 007-ish “licence to kill” and doing so with an injection of succinylcholine; to the mystery fancier, rather vieux jeux, but Mr. Clancy brandishes it as if it were cutting-edge technology.
The ideal audience for this novel, as with most of Clancy’s work, is an obese middle-aged male with an IQ around room temperature (okay, Fahrenheit) who is mentally certain he could kill terrorists if one were to present himself within easy reach in a position of extreme vulnerability, preferably bound and gagged. This man has had no power in his life and so thrives on fantasies about having physical, mental and political prowess — also sexual, social and many other forms of excellence. The self-aware reader will chuckle at the juxtaposition of a photo of the portly and pasty Mr. Clancy, complete with military baseball hat, with the frequent references to strenuous exercises on the part of the characters. One might almost term some of the prose “exercise porn”. (It reminded me of the jacket photos of the late Robert Parker, with an enormous belly, wrapped around the exploits of the highly physically active PI Spenser.) Similarly, the characters are disdainful of the activities of beautiful whores, have enormous expense accounts and stay only in the very best hotels, etc., etc. Kind of like James Bond without any of the wit, charm, class or intelligence.
The writing, as noted above, is utilitarian and untroubled by any attempt to do more than sketch in the outlines of locations, characters’ appearance, etc. (But vehicles and weapons are described minutely with a kind of fetishistic drooling.) Young men speak in the cliches of men 50 years their senior and there is no inherent irony. Villains are simple-minded wogs who, despite the advantages of birth, money and education, while they are slavering over white women and murdering blue-eyed blond children in a shopping mall, fall like targets in a shooting gallery to muscular young Americans with military connections. The right wing is the only wing, military might equals moral right, and a character with a strong belief that capital punishment is wrong is depicted as a nitwit. The few female characters are either whores or mothers, or cardboard victims. Difficult exercises in illegal computer access are executed with delightful, if unexplained, ease. If you are not the above-noted inactive middle-aged American male, you will find this all rather unbelievable, but believe me, this material is lovingly and precisely designed for its target audience. A gentleman of my acquaintance congratulated me for having found him a book that he could be bothered to read, since he had not managed to finish one in decades. (It took him nearly a year, his lips moving all the while.)
The odd thing about this particular novel, to my mind, is that it seems to be missing Act III. 480 pages is a large novel to many, but Clancy fans are accustomed to immense thousand-page tomes that serve to hold doors open very ably — this one ends abruptly with a small triumph for the Ryan family, they having murdered two or three terrorist allies, but the head of the terrorists’ org chart, although intimated, is entirely absent. In terms of video games, which this somewhat resembles and with which Clancy is intimately familiar, having been responsible for a couple of them, the climax with the “big boss” is strangely absent and merely prefigured. I honestly thought it was possible that Clancy had died at this point in writing the novel and Putnam published what it had, but that is not the case. I have no idea why the novel ends so abruptly. Perhaps Clancy hoped to publish a sequel of equal size, but it’s been 9 years and two supervening novels and nothing so far has enlightened the reader. Those of us who are not struggling to prop this large novel up on our enormous bellies while settled into our favourite La-Z-Boys with a Budweiser may mind; I do not. I was tired of this book’s simplistic jingoism and bored with the author’s inability to create realistic characters, settings or plot events. The tiger in question may never have a full set of teeth, even with the aid of a ghost writer, and most of us will consider ourselves blessed at the absence of complete dentition. But your portly middle-aged father-in-law may well find this pitiable exercise delightful, and if you can find one for a dollar, as I did — it’s likely you’ll be able to at any well-stocked thrift shop — you may well find yourself the apple of his eye for having provided it.