Monday, January 24, 2011

Bovine Scatology: A Retrospective

(Or, "Watch Your Step When the Chips are Down")

Postscript: For context, see Strikethru's post.

Monday, January 17, 2011

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.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Parts Unknown

There's something special about sitting around a comfortably warm room in a cozy little old house on a freezing cold Santa Fe day and listening to Great-Grandmother spin yarns for the benefit of the Great-Grandson, who has a school project to interview a relative and write a paper about their life.

Great Granny

There's something special about Great-Granny telling her Great-Grandson how, prior to WWII, she passed her secretarial school final exams by typing 60 words per minute, with less than three errors, over a duration of 5 minutes, on a manual Underwood typewriter. This is especially significant because said Grandson is himself a fledgling manual typist (of the hunt-and-peck sub-species).

The Line Writer

There's something special about seeing the cub reporter with his notebook and pencil furiously scribbling notes, barely keeping up with the stories as they fly like birds up to the ceiling and hover around, wings-a-flapping, circling back around for another reiteration, as Great-Grannies are want to do.

Santa Fe Station

It was a clear and bitterly cold day in Santa Fe, just clearing up from a New Year's eve snow storm, ice and glazed, packed snow covering the shaded portions of streets and sidewalks, making travel treacherous. We got into town a bit too early for our interview, so spent a few hours down on the Plaza, playing the role of tourist, which we do with a mixture of reluctance and reserved expectation, knowing that we aren't in the market for high-dollar art priced for the deservedly wealthy, yet enjoy window shopping and watching the tourists amble by. We end up eating lunch at Tomasita's, near the train station, seated in a corner booth in the crowded bar, watching the noontime regulars throw back their margaritas with plates of tamales and enchiladas. The waiting room quickly fills to overflowing with eager patrons, blasts of cold air accompanying each door's opening, then empties again as groups large and small, slim and fat, are seated, served and satiated, who then amble out into the cold, making room for another crowded foyer of hungry shoppers.

On Santa Fe Plaza

Winter in Santa Fe is a unique blend of southwestern style, religious tradition and commercial kitsch, all blended together amongst a spider's web of cracked and pot-holed streets glazed over with the dirt and grunge from the recent storms. Visitors from afar are expectant of something magical, spiritual even, to accompany their visit to The City Different, the challenge being to overlook the crust of decay and neglect long enough to see below the surface of things with a deeper insight. Santa Fe isn't Disneyland for New Agers; far from it. Coming away from a visit with renewed insight requires leaving something behind. One has to make room for the new by dispensing of something tired and useless.

The Pensive Writer

We've eaten our lunch, our bellies are full, and finally it's time to drive over to Great-Granny's for the Big Interview. We finally finish, an hour later, and say our goodbyes and depart, to drive the hour-long trek down the interstate highway back to Albuquerque, the late day's winter sun setting orange in the west, the temperature rapidly plummetting for another frigid night in the mountain west.


But our hearts, bellies and notebooks are filled, and we have work yet to do.