Clancy revisits 1970, writing his same old stuff

August 08, 1993|By George Grella


Tom Clancy


608 pages, $24.95

Judging by the number and quality of epigraphs to his latest novel, "Without Remorse," Tom Clancy has been reading books; like some low-rent T. S. Eliot, he quotes Virgil, Dryden and Yeats. His millions of fans, however, need not worry that he has gone all literary on them -- after the quotations, the writing goes downhill fast. Yes, Tom Clancy is back, with all the familiar Clancyisms that have endeared him and his work to innumerable readers, publicists and book sellers.

No doubt in reaction to the sorry state of affairs among those professionally involved in the anti-Communist racket, the author retreats into the past, setting the novel in 1970, when the Vietnam War was an overpowering fact of American life. John Kelly, a Navy SEAL who has worked for Mr. Clancy before, embarks on two separate and equally dangerous missions connected by their goals of rescue and revenge.

On behalf of the CIA and the Marines, he leads a clandestine attempt to free U.S. pilots from a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp; while not engaged in that business, he carries out a series of solo raids on a group of pimps and drug dealers who have tortured and killed a number of prostitutes.

Kelly's personal quest derives from his relationship with a young prostitute whom he temporarily saves from her tormentors; some high Navy brass, fearing the loss of vital American secrets and smarting from the famous botched raid on another prison camp, recruit him for the Vietnam mission.

The parallel activities, we are to see, resemble each other in the qualities they demand of the protagonist -- courage, strength, stealth, marksmanship and so forth. They also grow out of some similar motivation -- he undertakes the official mission out of patriotism and compassion, while the personal one depends upon his highly developed moral sense. He murders a dozen or so people (many of them in Baltimore) in the name of vigilante justice and, as the title indicates, without remorse.

The good guys are all clean-cut, clear-eyed, and firm-jawed, while the bad guys tend to be black or Italian in America and North Vietnamese (mostly referred to in a derogatory manner) abroad. Mr. Clancy violates a Cold War commandment by making a Russian who interrogates American prisoners a decent lTC fellow (but he hates the Vietnamese, so it's OK). A couple of rich draft dodgers who help betray Kelly's mission suggest that the time Mr. Clancy spent with Dan Quayle paid off.

The writing seems even duller and more fatigued than usual, limping along in words of one syllable in short, flat sentences, each of which struggles under one small bit of information before expiring. The dialogue rarely resembles anything like normal American speech, even when the author throws in a few obscenities to prove he's one of the boys. The prissy authorial voice, which sounds like a small-town librarian speaking from somewhere in the American heartland, generally achieves the emotional resonance of a second-rate sob sister -- there's not a genuine, credible scrap of feeling in the whole book.

One typical Clancy element, the vaunted attention to technical detail, has declined measurably in importance and visibility. Aside from a few bits of nautical lore about running powerboats in the Chesapeake Bay, where -- along with the streets of Baltimore -- much of the action takes place, the only instruction involves making silencers for rifles and pistols. Readers who expect accuracy, incidentally, should be warned that along with its predictable jingoism the author's view of the Vietnam War contradicts the historical record.

Mr. Clancy constructs the novel according to principles that have served him in the past, jumping from place to place, cutting up a number of separate lines of action into discrete blocks and firing short bursts of paragraphs at a dozen different characters. The method, sometimes regarded as cinematic, helps to chop up the amazing tedium of an immense book into small soporific doses, rather like taking sleeping pills one at a time instead of gulping down the whole bottle at once.

It is clear from both the manner and matter of the novel that Mr. Clancy writes with the movies in mind. Certainly he provides so little in the way of characterizing detail or authentic reality that any team of experienced screenwriters and directors can fill in the blanks. In its awful way, "Without Remorse" resembles a handful of recognizable contemporary films -- its plot and protagonist combine Sylvester Stallone action movies with Charles Bronson urban-avenger films, while displaying the moral profundity of a Chuck Norris kung-fu epic.

Dr. Grella teaches English at the University of Rochester. He writes frequently about the thriller.

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