Dead or Alive?
Dead or Alive? Alive, but in critical condition. That's my assessment of Tom Clancy's new novel "Dead or Alive," cowritten by Grant Blackwood. I knew something was wrong, like one of Clancy's special ops guys entering a room, gun drawn and forward in a two-handed grip, slowly and carefully scanning the room, listening for any signs of life. Only in this case, it didn't take much scanning - the first sentence of the book, actually - to determine that things weren't exactly healthy in Clancyland.
Here's the book's entire first sentence, see if you can spot what's wrong: "Light troops - an Eleven-Bravo light infantryman, according the United States Army's MOS (military occupational specialty) system - are supposed to be "pretty" spit-and-polish troops with spotless uniforms and clean-shaven faces, but First Sergeant Sam Driscoll wasn't one of those any more, and hadn't been for some time."
We could spend some time marvelling at Clancy's cleverness here, starting off the novel by using a compounded sentence interjected with a short lesson in military jargon to introduce to the reader a new character and his military pedigree. But the point is, in the midst of all this cleverness, he's missed one important detail: a word. The sentence is missing a word. Notice in the middle of the phrase "...according the United States Army's MOS..." Should not this phrase actually read "...according TO the United States Army's MOS..."?
Don't get my intention wrong, I've read a lot of Tom Clancy; in fact I'd consider myself a fan, since I've read every book in the Jack Ryan series, going all the way back to his first, "The Hunt for Red October." And also, I'd have to reference a famous political speech, given way back in the 1988 US Presidential Elections, where Senator Lloyd Bensen lambasted Dan Quayle with the now-legendary line "Senator Quayle, I knew Jack Kennedy and you're no Jack Kennedy." That's true enough; though I hack out a blog article once every few weeks, I'm no Tom Clancy, not even close. So what gives me the right to nitpick his latest novel for grammatical errors? It's not like I've earned the right to criticize, no? Maybe after I've published a few dozen best-sellers myself, right?
Well hold on there, cowboy, not so fast. You don't need to backpedal and apologize just because you're not in Clancy's league, no sir. In fact, what gives you the right to criticize is the fact that you're one of Clancy's buying public. You're the customer, and the customer, as the adage goes, is always right. Right?
Well, one typo isn't bad in a book of 950 pages (even if the margins are extra wide, the paper extra thick, as if to pad out in volume a shorter book to the expectations of long-term readers, who demand another tome). While that may be true, its location - right the middle of the first sentence - (sorry, bad joke), just rubs me the wrong way.
Well, sorry to disappoint you, but there's more. Turn to page 136 in the hardcover edition. You'll notice, toward the bottom of the page, this sentence: '"Fine, but if you think Gerry's just going to hand you a gun and say, 'Go forth and make the world safe for democracy,' you have another think coming."'
"...another THINK coming..."? I could have forgiven the publisher for the first error, as blaring as it was in the book's introductory paragraph, but now here's a second one, obviously caused by over-reliance on a word processor's grammar-checking feature rather than a person actually sitting down and proofreading the book, like in the good old days. Heck, I'd be willing to proofread future Clancy novels myself. For a modest fee, of course.
But there's more. Please turn in your books to page 915, fifth paragraph from the top. Here's the sentence: "His right arm was cinched into the leather restraint, while the right, the one on the same side as the equipment, was stretched across a folding towel and similarly secured."
So, the guy has two right arms, or what? Sigh.
I could nitpick. Like at the start of chapter 89, on page 905. Clancy has been using this device of capitalizing the first word or words of each chapter, but here the device falls apart:
"LATER, when asked BY Hendley and Granger, Jack Ryan Jr. would remain cagey about whether he'd intended to simply wound the Emir or, in the heat of battle, he'd missed his center-mass target." Again, it's the little things, like capitalizing the word "BY" in the middle of the sentence when it's out of context with the way it's been done in the rest of the book.
This isn't a book review, so I'm not going to go on and on about how the story compares to past Clancy novels in the Jack Ryan saga, except to say that it's a satisfying read that serves to bring up-to-date the fictional past of the Jack Ryan series into the current post-9/11 milieu. But these blaring typographical errors mar an otherwise fine author's credibility, and I'm left to wonder if, like the fictional Jack Ryan himself, Tom Clancy deserves best to be put out to pasture in quiet retirement. That, or at least he needs a good proofreader.
In all fairness to Mr. Clancy, my criticism has at least as much to say about the state of the publishing industry as it does about his word processing skills, and serves as an indictment in much the same way as Clancy's work has been a criticism of the military and intelligence community's over-reliance upon high-technology in the place of old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground fieldwork. This is not to suggest that Mr. Clancy doesn't do his homework; far from it. The novel hints at years of difficult research in preparation for this book, as has been the hallmark of his fiction from its inception. It's just a shame that his hard work was compromised by such shoddy editing. Perhaps an over-reliance upon the high-technology of writing has revealed a crucial flaw in the state of the writing process itself, as if this novel's dilemma speaks to the general need for a method closer to the field, boots-on-the-ground in Clancy-speak, more in keeping with the legacy of classic fiction writing where we virtually never saw such blaring typographical and contextual errors, revealing the rotten inner core of the modern publishing business.
I grew up as a fiction reader on Clancy, and marveled at the depth of his research and tightness of his prose. It was obvious from the beginning that his early work, like Red October, were labors of love, representative of a fledgling author's dream-come-true of becoming a well-recognized author. Clancy's reputation in popular fiction was second-to-none, and remained so for years, at least in my estimation. But the metal has begun to rust, the shine is off the apple, and this latest work resembles little more than some mechanical output from a once well-oiled writing machine that's begun to show signs of neglect, the Clancy brand now tarnished, to which his publisher, Putnam, is solidly and squarely to blame. And that, to quote a Clancy title, is the sum of all fears.