My elegy for Clancy and the era of US global confidence his writing both captured and helped to create as appeared in USAToday, October 8, 2013.
Tom Clancy wrote America well: Column
Last week, Americans mourned the loss of best-selling novelist Tom Clancy, whose seven No. 1 books were perhaps the most research-laden fiction to dot summer beaches like so many hermit crabs. Moviegoers and summer readers will surely feel the loss after his last book comes out in December. But even before his death, we were all feeling the loss of the world that his novels evoked.
Complex characters in delicate, dangerous situations operating from a sense of moral certainty about their political actions are the heart of a Clancy novel. Try to find that certainty today in fiction or in real life.
Clancy’s page counts ran high, a function of dense narratives in which strong personalities, complicated military technology and high political stakes collided. Amid a realistically cluttered calculus of international variables, however, the men and women — well, let’s be honest, mostly men — of Clancy’s U.S. government believe in a right answer, a right thing to do and then take the risks to do it.
In The Hunt for Red October, readers meet young Jack Ryan (star of much of Clancy’s work) as an analyst counseling caution around a conference table, yet we are won over by Ryan as this considered intellectual risks his life to board an already-at-sea nuclear submarine.
Clancy’s admiring tales of U.S. military action were pitch-perfect as participants in the cultural front of the Cold War. Well after the age of the superpowers passed, Clancy continued to write with the conviction that there was a clear, honorable place in the world for the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus. No longer the voice of the zeitgeist, he offered an increasingly precious commodity: a vision of satisfying, good-guy-wielded U.S. power.
His dominance of books, films and even video games stands in contrast to Hollywood’s decade-long struggle to make a feature about the Iraq War that anyone wanted to go see. Clancy’s heroic certainty sells. Muddled introspection and pain don’t.
Terror War ambiguity
In fiction and in life, the stories of America’s global might have become increasingly ambiguous. The West Wing’s most gifted speechwriters have not been able to translate either democratic uprisings or despots’ atrocities into opportunities for American leadership.
Meanwhile, Hollywood’s attempts to envision intrepid U.S. engagement have increasingly relied on superheroes or extraterrestrial threats. It is as though morally clear reasons for Americans to act are not just bygones of another era but also scenarios from an alien universe.
White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen, this summer’s weak tales of exploding White Houses and weapons-wielding presidents, are more evidence of how much we have already been missing Clancy’s version of our world. And how hard it is to return there. We are searching for Jack Ryan, searching for a “clear and present danger” to escape from the foreign civil wars, terrorist hydras and creepy intelligence scandals that define our global landscape.
We will miss Tom Clancy, his page-turning prose and the obsessive attention to detail that brought the texture of reality to his books.
We have already been missing the political universe from which Clancy came and to which his books promised to transport us, a place never simple but still certain, where clear convictions made flawed Americans into heroes.
Laura Kenna is a freelance writer and speaker on American culture. Follow her on Twitter @LKenna2.
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