THE SUM OF ALL FEARS. By Tom Clancy. G.P. Putnam Sons. 800 pages. $24.95.
TOM CLANCY is back, and once again our way of life hangs in the balance. The CIA's Jack Ryan also returns to save the world from terrorists, Washington bureaucrats and a philandering president, who loses his grip on a world crisis but not on his comely national security adviser. The action is bigger and bolder than ever: 800 pages packed with sub-plots and good old-fashioned twists and turns.
Make no mistake, this will be a bestseller for weeks -- it was third on the Sunday Sun list Nov. 10 -- as surely as "Terminator II" was destined to be box-office boffo. The publisher breezily made that claim before a single copy was sold. The question is whether it's a good book.
The answer depends to a certain degree on the reader's expectations. Most Clancy fans will undoubtedly gobble it up. "The Sum of All Fears" has it all: sex and impotence (Ryan is temporarily afflicted), superpower hostilties, football fans and Arab fanatics, searing tragedy and soaring triumphs. Readers with advanced degrees in nuclear physics will enjoy several chapters immensely. It is very entertaining in spots, sometimes unintentionally so.
On the other hand, Clancy may not make many converts with this one, his sixth thriller. It is terribly long, his longest by far, and doesn't really get revved up until page 615. He spends entire chapters on extraneous matters that have the tiniest relevance to the main drama.
If the author were an elegant writer, these digressions would not be a big problem. Clancy, however, often writes with the grace of Hulk Hogan dancing the polonaise. He describes Ryan's wife thusly: "a quintessential Wasp, except that she was Catholic, slender and attractive, mother of two." Protests from petite Protestants are expected shortly.
And what potboiler would be complete without dialogue that no real person has ever even dreamed of saying. Here's a sample. The hero is discussing his peace plan with an Israeli security officer, who says: "You have never experienced a holocaust, Dr. Ryan." To which Irish Jack replies: "Oh? Cromwell and the potato famine don't count? Get off that horse, general." And get off that page, reader.
With prose like, "The first kiss lasted for some eternal period of time," Clancy slowly gets to the climax. Arab terrorists from the PFLP have unearthed an unexploded Israeli nuclear bomb which was inadvertently dropped on a Syrian farmer's field during the 1973 Mideast war. It is now the late 1990s, but the bad guys somehow refurbish and even enhance this device, with the aid of some unemployed East German commies. Their goal is to use it to provoke an all-out war between the Americans and the Soviets, who have abandoned the Arab cause. Worse yet for the PFLPers, peace has broken out in the Middle East thanks to Ryan's plan -- which Clancy never fully details, probably because it would be too preposterous even for commercial fiction.
Neither is it explained why a thermonuclear war is supposed to benefit the PFLP. The terrorists seem to know everything about atomic weapons except for the widely accepted notion that a lot of them going off at once would render the planet lifeless. At one point the reader is supposed to believe, as President J. Robert Fowler clearly does, that Iran is bankrolling the evil scheme. No one counseling the president points out the obvious flaw in this theory: Iran borders the USSR and would be immediately affected by a superpower nuclear exchange.
Clancy's opus also suffers at lower levels from plot implausibility. For example, a Greek policeman whose job it is to spot terrorists passing through Athens identifies a bad guy at 50 meters and takes his photograph, presumably with a telephoto lens. The cop, it would be reasonable to assume, recognized the terrorist from an intelligence photo. The officer is soon murdered by his subject's bodyguard, but the film is salvaged. Back at police headquarters, some 50 pages later, no one can figure out who this bad guy is. The point of having the policeman recognize the terrorist is so a murder can take place, but it is too early in the book for the good guys to start wising up to the bad guys.
Clancy isn't a total mala-plotter. The last 185 pages are truly thrilling as the superpower crisis unfolds. Still, taken as a whole, the book is mostly silly, even for a bestseller.
David Holahan is a free-lance writer in East Haddam, Conn.