Into the Sunset

Anyone who’s read Perigee can probably tell that Tom Clancy was a major inspiration of mine.

I first discovered him in 1985 while still a cadet at The Citadel. After three years of mediocre-to-piss-poor academic performance, I was finally this close to making the Dean’s List my senior year…and I will forever blame Mr. Clancy for causing me to miss it by that much. All because my roommate handed me this little book called The Hunt for Red October right before final exam week.

Notice how I keep shifting blame there?

So yeah, that happened. The weekend before finals was spent holed up in my room wallowing in every word of that confounded book instead of Shakespeare’s tragedies or Milton’s Paradise Lost. My professors were unimpressed with my sudden infatuation. Some regarded this upstart insurance salesman-cum-author with even more derision than Steven King, which illustrates perhaps one of the biggest problems with literature today: eggheads who emphasize all of the wrong things about writing.*

Telling a good story is all that matters in the end. You can be a master of character study or mood setting or ingenious metaphor, with impeccable grammar and surgically precise sentence structure, but if it’s a lame story you’re only going to impress the literary Cool Kid’s Club. And for some authors, that’s exactly what they aspire to. Or so I’m told — beats me, I sure don’t read them.

Tom Clancy was criticized for a lot of things: too much pedantic detail, too one-dimensional, too right-wing. Whatev. Don’t care. His books rocked. His extreme attention to detail is what made them pop and stand out among other military or spy adventures. And his obvious love and respect for the people who put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf. Jack Ryan was a great character: easy to identify with, never straying too far from his own sense of “I can’t freaking believe this $#!+.” And when the unbelievable happened, he damn well did something about it which is precisely what a good literary hero is supposed to do.

Last year I was fortunate enough to find a used hardback of Hunt for Red October in the original Naval Institute printing. It now occupies an honored place on my writing desk. For all of his improbable, imaginative stories, Red October was the one that really lit a fire in me and it’s burned for a good twenty-five years. The combination of fly-on-the-wall realism, down-to-earth characters, and good old-fashioned intrigue was irresistible. It’s a tone I’ve tried to achieve in my own writing and I’m grateful to live in an age where spaceflight is no longer locked into the realm of sci-fi. He was an early supporter of commercial space ventures and I’d hoped he would dip his toe in those waters for at least one book.

His writing began to lose its edge after Executive Orders and I’d always assumed it was because the Cold War paradigm he thrived in had disappeared. But from what I’ve read recently, it appears that it may have had more to do with chronic health problems which have finally run their course.

Peggy Noonan’s eulogy in the Wall Street Journal spoke of him as a man who opened up to and encouraged new authors. I’ve never been afraid of contacting other established writers, and will forever regret not reaching out to the one who influenced me most.

RIP, Jack Ryan.

*It bears mentioning that only a few notorious Citadel professors were all that uppity about literature, most were in fact quite down-to-earth. One day I’ll have to tell some stories about one irascible old Lieutenant Colonel known as Trash Mouth.

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