We lost a major figure in American culture when Tom Clancy died last October. In “The Hunt for Red October,” first the book and then the movie, Clancy created Jack Ryan, an enduring series character. He took Ryan on a remarkable career path that included numerous adventures such as a clash with a sitting president in “Clear and Present Danger,” and then led to the White House. And in the James Bondesque movie “Jack Ryan, Shadow Recruit,” his adventures continue.
Now that we can take in Clancy’s astonishing career as a whole, with his prodigious output in both fiction and non-fiction, we realize that he was the closest thing we have ever had to Leo Tolstoy. And not only that: the Jack Ryan books taken together can be considered an American version of “War and Peace.” As in “War and Peace,” the action unfolds slowly in Clancy’s books. Like Tolstoy, Clancy takes the time to delineate and individualize his characters. Like Tolstoy, he has an exquisite sense of the nuances of character as they are displayed in social interaction, paying just the right amount of attention to clothing and gesture. It is of course this unhurried attention to detail that caused both authors to write such long books. And it is this same unhurried attention to detail that makes his characters, even the bad guys, so intriguing.
“The Hunt for Red October” came out in 1984, and its sequel, “The Cardinal in the Kremln,” came out in 1988. With this last book, written while the Soviet Union was imploding, Clancy said goodbye to the Cold War. Rather than taking actual conflicts, like the Cold War, he then proceeded to take the abundant potential conflicts around the globe and imagine them as real. Thus, in “Clear and Present Danger” (1989), he took on the issue of covert warfare and the President’s responsibility, of lack thereof, for it. In “The Dragon and the Bear” (2000), he imagined what a war between Russia and China would be like. This book is an epic masterpiece, and is probably Clancy’s most under-appreciated book–probably because it never became a movie or a video game.
Since Clancy understood so keenly the potential for conflict between and among the great powers, and the way those conflicts grow out of the past, it’s fitting that his last great book, “Command Authority,” brings together the past and the present. The complicated plot includes events from thirty years earlier in which Jack Ryan Sr. participates, and which in turn affect Jack Ryan Jr.
As if it wasn’t enough for Clancy to bring together the past and the present in “Command Authority,” in it he also anticipates today’s headlines.” In it, Russia invades Ukraine.
To present such a story coherently, Clancy needed a large cast of characters, so at the beginning of “Command Authority” there is a four-page of the principal ones. (It’s just the kind of list that first-time readers of “War and Peace” would appreciate, but don’t have.) That’s a good thing, too, because Clancy’s mind was a character-generating machine, so much so that he takes actual people, renames them and makes them his own.
For instance, here is what Mary Pat Foley, Director of the CIA (Clancy is good about presenting powerful women), tells President Jack Ryan about Valeri Volodin, President of the Russian Federation: “We know he was KGB in the middle to late eighties, then FSB for a short time. When the Soviet Union fell apart, he went into banking, made a few billion, and then dabbled in politics in his home of Saint Petersburg.” So we know that Volodin is a stand-in for Vladimir Putin. Again like Tolstoy, Clancy blends both fictional and historical characters into a single narrative.
In the book Volodin’s authority is such that he can interrupt a news program when he wants to. (Putin has recently made similar television appearances in connection with the crisis in Ukraine.) In case there’s any doubt in anybody’s mind about who he’s dealing with, Clancy gives us this description of Volodin as he enters the television station: “Volodin was a small man, only five-eight, but fit and energetic, like a coiled spring ready to burst through his dark brown suit.”
In connection with Clancy’s appropriation of today’s players in Eastern Europe, it’s worth mentioning a woman whom he calls Oksana Zueva. (Clancy or his research assistant is very good with Slavic names, which are consistently authentic and spelled correctly.) Clancy describes Zueva as “A fifty-year-old blonde, she usually kept her hair braided in a traditional Ukrainian style…” The reference to a blonde Ukrainian politician with braids identifies her as the real-life Yulia Timoshenko, former Prime Minister of Ukraine, and leader of the All-Ukrainian Union “Fatherland” political party.
And then, dramatically and even shockingly, Clancy has one of Volodin’s thugs assassinate Zueva as she is about to make a speech at the political rally in Kiev. This assassination in turn precipitates a series of other events that Clancy balances in his usual masterful way.
It is fitting that in Clancy’s last book Dingo Chavez and John Clark, two of his heroes who appeared in several of his books, save the day with a daring commando-like raid on a Kiev hotel to capture the head bad guy. Still, by the time he died, Clancy had been writing long enough, and understood the volatile state of the world in the twenty-first century well enough to avoid a happy ending that strains credibility. Jack Ryan Sr. says to Jack Ryan Jr. the most that any honest President can say: “We didn’t lose, Jack. We just didn’t win.”
Thanks to Clancy’s extraordinary skill in bringing characters to life and engaging them in multi-level conflicts, we have a keener understanding, and perhaps, more reasonable expectations, of a troubled world in which the best we can hope for is not to win