Those of us who love Tom Clancy love him for his spectacular virtues as a writer, and acknowledge at the same time that he has spectacular faults. He sings the hymns of patriotic heroism better and more believably than almost any other writer, and sets those paeans against fully complex renderings of government, the military, the intelligence establishment, and world affairs. He can handle accounts of violence and battle and intrigue as capably as anyone. On the other hand, confronted with the ordinary challenges and tasks of fiction -- convincing dialogue, introspection, the elementary positioning and manipulation of characters in a scene -- his prose technique is so crude as to make your teeth ache.
His newest novel, Red Rabbit (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $28.95), puts all his weaknesses on display, at his usual daunting length (618 pages). The novel, set back in Clancy time between Patriot Games and The Cardinal of the Kremlin, finds hero Jack Ryan, then age 32, on CIA assignment with his wife and daughter in England. Ostensibly working in the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence, Ryan, an analyst, once again finds himself moved into field operations covering the defection of a signals officer from the Moscow Centre office of the KGB. In the process, Ryan, and the rest of the CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service, uncover a plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II.
For the novel, there's the problem, an especially acute one for Clancy, who has already thoroughly and masterfully created the whole Jack Ryan world for us. (Ryan, in current Clancy time, is President of the United States, and he got there convincingly.) The whole repertory company of Clancy characters is known to us: Ryan and his wife Catherine, their best friends Robbie and Sissie Jackson, the CIA superstar husband and wife team Ed and Mary Pat Foley, Deputy Director of Intelligence and Ryan mentor Admiral James Greer, and so forth. We have seen all these people grow and develop over two decades. We know where they are now. In Red Rabbit, Clancy must cast back to an earlier fictional time and show us these people in younger, less realized form -- a daunting task for any novelist.
He tends to overshoot the mark. Jack Ryan, even in The Hunt for Red October, was never quite this naïve or so slap-dash working-class in his conversation. Ed and Mary Pat Foley, in their first plum posting with Ed as Chief of Station in Moscow, come off a little better. The three big intelligence guys, Admiral Greer, Bob Ritter (Deputy Director, Operations) and Judge Arthur Moore (Director of Central Intelligence) never really emerge as characters at all -- and they talk a lot.
Clancy also betrays some awkwardness in having to deal with more real history than ever before. The attempt on the Pope's life was, of course, real. The President is Ronald Reagan, not one of Clancy's fictional constructs; as a result, we never see him directly. Margaret Thatcher similarly appears only peripherally. But Yuri Andropov, just on the verge of assuming the premiership of the Soviet Union, plays a central role, indeed sets the whole plot in motion by ordering the assassination of the Pope.
Most remarkably for a Clancy novel, there is, until the very end, no action at all. Think of the truly brilliant set pieces of the Clancy oeuvre -- the 100-plus-page description of the final battle and helicopter evacuation of U.S. Special forces from Colombia in Clear and Present Danger; the terrorist attack on the daycare center in Executive Orders -- and realize that there is nothing like that at all in Red Rabbit.
Then, near the end, Jack Ryan, together with a woefully small team of British agents, straps on a gun and a radio and pushes into the crowd in St. Peter's Square to try to intercept the man they have identified as the likely assassin of the Pope. Waiting for the Pope to appear before the multitudes, Ryan thinks:
"Jack reminded himself of his time in the Marine Corps. Crossing the Atlantic on his helicopter landing ship…on Sunday, they'd held church services, and at that moment the church pennant had been run up to the truck. It flew over the national ensign. It was the U.S. Navy's way of acknowledging that there was one higher loyalty than the one a man had for his country. That loyalty was to God Himself -- the one power higher than that of the United States of America, and his country acknowledged that. Jack could feel it, here and now, carrying a gun…Ryan had sworn as a Marine to fight his country's enemies. But here and now he swore to himself to fight against God's own enemies."
That is vintage Clancy, and vintage Ryan. It's a long time in coming, in Red Rabbit. You do get there, and you do want to get there. But all told, Red Rabbit is not a likely introduction to Clancy's world for a new reader. And veteran Clancy readers, glad enough to read the book, will likely not re-read it nearly as happily or frequently as they re-read many of the others.