[On March 18th, 1915, novelist Richard Condon was born—so in honor of the 100th birthday of this talented American writer, this week I’ll AmericanStudy political thrillers, one of the genres in which he wrote most prolifically. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post, so please share your own thrilling texts and takes in comments!]
On learning from political thrillers that (eventually) make us cringe.
He wasn’t the first author I truly loved—that honor would go, if I have to settle on one, to Edward Ormondroyd (whose book I shared with my boys in a pivotal period in our lives). Nor was he the first in whose library I read multiple works—Tolkien takes that crown, as I ploughed through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the summer before 6th grade (and have been very excitedly sharing them with my boys this winter). But Tolkien’s books are all connected, and in fact he even considered Lord of the Rings one long novel (it was his publisher who insisted that it be divided into a trilogy). And so I would have to admit that the first non-children’s book or young adult author for whom I read multiple unconnected books—who, that is, inspired me to check out different offerings not because a series compelled me, but just because I needed more—was none other than the dean of American military, espionage, and political porn (I mean, thrillers), Tom Clancy.
It’s easy, and not entirely inaccurate, to claim that the Clancy beloved to the 11 year old AmericanStudier was substantially different than the author he would become in subsequent decades (and remain until his October 2013 death). I would certainly argue that around the time of Debt of Honor and Executive Orders Clancy decided to make his right-wing politics much more central to his books, and it’s no coincidence that this decidedly not right-wing reader found those novels much less appealing; I made it through Rainbox Six and then said “No mas.” But honesty compels me to admit that in looking back at the Clancy books I loved, a list headed by The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising, I find them full of similarly objectionable adulation for the military, contempt for the “bureaucrats” who try to limit it, xenophobia (other than toward those foreigners who are also true soldiers, who are wonderful in every culture), and more. They may have been better novels than the later books, that is, but I still feel pretty guilty about how much pleasure I got out of them.
Yet if I move beyond that guilt, I think it’s fair to say that I can learn a good deal from my youthful infatuation with the Clancy. Partly, of course, I can learn about how talented, best-selling authors find their niche audiences and deliver the goods—for Clancy, it’s fair to say that middle school boys (or men who haven’t quite outgrown that phase) are a core such audience, and he gave us all the submarine battles, tank warfare, and macho heroics we could handle. (In Red Storm, a meek weatherman finds his inner macho warrior and wins a blonde Icelandic beauty.) But Clancy’s appeal isn’t that simple—I’m sure there are lots of authors who write about similar subjects and themes and yet would not have done it for me nearly as fully. He also constructs perfect thriller plots, whether on a small scale (as in October) or the broadest (as in Storm); and the truth, even if we lit snobs don’t like to admit it, is that the same can be said for many of the great novels. Scarlet Letter? Absalom? Beloved? All thrillers in their own way, perfectly plotted to lead us to their climactic revelations. I’m not saying Clancy is on par with those folks—but they’re all writers, all novels, and all worth our analytical time.
Next thriller tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on these thrillers? Others you’d highlight for the weekend post?
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