'Debt of Honor' a struggle, not a thrill

August 23, 1994|By Bob Baylus | Bob Baylus,Special to The Sun

Dr. Jack Ryan, the hero of most of Tom Clancy's thrillers, has done a bit of everything in the defense of his country. He's worked on nuclear submarines during international crises, fought IRA terrorists, and brought down drug lords.

Ryan is also a professor at the Naval Academy and a successful financial investor. But after a particularly nasty clandestine operation, Ryan has spent the last two years being a househusband, fixing lunches for his three adorable children and watching his wife go off to her medical practice at Johns Hopkins. But if there is one certainty in an uncertain world, it is that Jack Ryan will defend life, liberty and apple pie if asked.

When Ryan is in West Virginia having a golfing match with a buddy (who happens to be a rear admiral), he is summoned to the White House. The president -- and country -- need him. And how!

There is a new world order, and with it new dangers. Alliances have changed. Friends are treated with suspicion, old enemies may or may not be allies. The president needs Ryan's clear-eyed, no-nonsense approach to ensure that America can navigate these new troubling waters. Itching to get back in "action," Ryan accepts the position of national security adviser to the well-meaning but untested president.

Right away, there is a threat from the East. Japan's government has gone though an ominous change and now has military aspirations. The true power behind the scenes is a billionaire industrialist named Raizo Yamata, who wants to wage war on the United States because of the bombing of his family in Nagasaki in World War II. He has also planned a surreptitious financial attack on the United States and Europe.

If Ryan's plate wasn't filled with enough emergencies, he is also faced with a constitutional crisis: The vice president has a roving eye and also some skeletons in his past. Another situation concerns the dismantling of Russian missiles. Due to unilateral downsizing of the military, there is the concern that the United States is not able to reply to the situations at hand.

Everything about Tom Clancy's "Debt of Honor" is larger than life. This is particularly true of the length (nearly 800 pages) and cost ($25.95). With a first printing of 2 million copies of the book, obviously the publisher, Putnam, is expecting a big payback. The bigger question might be: How many of the 2 million books will be read until the last page?

For the kind of investment in time and money, the reader gets not one but two international crises. There are subplots covering such topics as sexual harassment, foreign lobbyists, international financial manipulation and many more.

Still, "Debt of Honor" is missing a coherent structure, thrills, believable characters and anything approaching realistic dialogue. From a dramatic standpoint, the only thing this book has going for it is a suitably apocalyptic ending leaving little doubt about still another installment of: JACK RYAN SAVES THE WORLD!

Whether it was submarines or missile systems, Mr. Clancy always gave the reader insights into the world of technology in works such as "The Hunt for Red October" and "Red Storm Rising." In "Debt of Honor," the arcane topics of geopolitics and international finance are explored. The actual shooting war doesn't get going until about 300 pages into the book -- and that is constantly being interrupted by subplots.

There are other problems. All the characters sound alike, and while Mr. Clancy is not noted for his characterizations, this lot is particularly ponderous. The major characters are either complete cliches -- such as the portrait of Raizo Yamata -- or simply unbelievable. Cathy Ryan, Jack's wife, is a personal favorite. She is beautiful, an attentive and caring mother, an internationally renowned doctor who wins a Nobel Prize in medicine. No doubt she bakes her own pies from scratch when not doing volunteer work in a shelter.

There are also other anomalies, such as how the media did not report the Japanese invasion of several islands in the Pacific in which hundreds of Americans died and thousands were taken prisoner. But, by then, the reader has been numbed by an overlong, convoluted plot with too many characters and subplots and too few thrills. The reader deserves better.

Baylus is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Debt of Honor"

Author: Tom Clancy

Publisher: Putnam

Length, price: 768 pages, $25.95

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