When news of Tom Clancy’s death broke on Wednesday morning, I didn’t think about the Cold War or covert ops, about compulsive 800-page novels or multipage descriptions of submarines and guns. No, the first thing I thought of was the summer of 1992.
Back then I was an Honours English student working at a bookstore on Victoria’s Government Street. My life was planned out: Yes, I was going to be a writer, but first I was going to grad school, to slip into a career as an English professor.
Late one afternoon, two men came into the store, clearly American in that slightly louder-talking, slightly bigger-than-life way that stands out in unassuming Victoria. They wandered the store for a bit before stopping at the display of Tom Clancy’s then-newest paperback, The Sum of All Fears.
One of the men brought a copy to the cash desk. Rather than pulling out his wallet, though, he asked to borrow a pen. Flipping the book open, he signed the title page, along with a note, something along the lines of: “Thank you for your support.”
He slid the book back across the desk to me with a small smile. And then, without another word, Tom Clancy left the store.
That casually bad-ass blend of hubris and humility was my one personal encounter with Clancy. And that would have been it, a nice anecdote but little more, except that I actually read the book. Truth be told, I consumed, in huge gulps, everything he had written to that point, drawn in by his tight plotting, his intricate world-building, and his deft hand with characterization. Jack Ryan was a revelation to me, the iconic American cowboy – living by a moral code, standing up for what was right – recast as, of all things, a CIA analyst. I was won over.
At that time, academic career-stream in sight, I was the worst sort of literary elitist; I wasn’t supposed to be won over by the likes of Clancy. Working in the bookstore, though, provided an insight into what people actually read, and why. This didn’t help me academically, but it was crucial to shaping me as a writer.
Clancy was one of a group of authors that included the recently departed and much-missed Elmore Leonard and Ray Bradbury, among others, who reminded me of the values of storytelling, the virtues of characterization, plot and wonder – elements that were either overlooked or looked down upon in the English department.
This alternative education changed my life. I turned down my grad school acceptances and fellowships in order to focus on writing.
That Clancy would be part of that group of seminal influences surprised me then, and surprises me somewhat today.
It’s not that the books aren’t good: The early Clancy novels are terrific thrillers, well-paced, surprising but plausible, and breathtakingly twisty. Sure, his writing isn’t without its problems – his dialogue is sometimes so wooden it feels carved, the technical details were often excessive (I probably won’t ever serve aboard the Red October, but after reading the novel, I would definitely be able to), and many of the later, co-written books have the fiction-factory feel of James Patterson.
But the early Clancy novels were pure reading pleasure. Patriot Games was likely my favourite, with its smaller-scale perils and closer attention to Ryan as a character, but there’s something utterly winning about the excesses of The Sum of All Fears and Debt of Honor.
No, the problem wasn’t the books. The problem was political.
Beliefs-wise, Clancy and I could not be more distant: His lean to the far right was roughly equivalent to mine to the far left.
His novels unapologetically reflect those beliefs: pro-strong intelligence communities, pro-military industrial complex, pro everything, basically, that I had spent much of my undergraduate years marching against.
Despite the Republican flag-waving, Clancy had something a mere polemicist does not: characters.
Reading a Clancy novel is akin to viewing a mirror-image of the exultantly left-leaning (at least by U.S. standards) The West Wing. In both cases, the featured characters are, generally, intelligent people, working tirelessly, not only for the common good but for the ideals that have shaped an entire nation: unity and liberty, freedom and safety.
Clancy’s work is a reminder that, no matter your political leanings, bravery, honour, commitment and sacrifice are ideals to be strived for, and that there is a nobility in that striving, right or left.
No, I didn’t agree with Clancy about a lot of things, but heroism transcends politics. And story, of course, trumps all. Thank you for reminding me of that, Mr. Clancy.