Tom Clancy's Dead, and I Don't Feel So Good Myself

So I meant to write something after Tom Clancy’s passing, and I’m only getting around to it now, because Tortoise.

In fairness to me, there have been more pressing matters: launching The Last Good Halloween, and wrapping up Zero Phase, and Tweeting and Tortoise business and family time and what-not. (My holy trinity of the writer’s life consists of three activities, all of which must be done almost every day: write, read, promote your writing. Roughly in that order. Not that I always do them in that order.)

But in all seriousness, I need to write something, because Tom Clancy’s one of those people for whom I have complicated feelings for which (as a better writer than I once observed) only Germans have words.

I first read The Hunt for Red October in paperback in the summer of 1988, between 5th and 6th grades. I was a precocious kid, bespectacled, street dumb but book smart, and relying on the latter for my sense of identity. I’d read a lot of demanding technical books, partly out of burning curiosity to understand, say, lasers or space shuttles, but also to amass knowledge, which I equated with facts, and which seemed to me to be the end-all, be-all of human existence. And I read to escape, which was both healthy and unhealthy. Needless to say, my social skills were somewhat lacking. But I became an autodidact who could impress other grade schoolers by giving them facts about koala bears for their papers, or a reasonably accurate (if undetailed) description of how nuclear bombs worked.

And The Hunt for Red October may have been the first adult novel that I read, the first book with plot arcs that had to be followed from page to page and remembered from day to day. I’d been reading kids’ books, fiction wise, 4B Goes Wild and things of that sort, with main characters that were in virtually every scene. And here was something hefty, with multiple plot strands, and action that moved from one place to the next. I had to at least dig in and remember, say, who Marko Ramius was, and why he killed his zampolit, and why Jack Ryan was meeting with all these people in Langley.

For the next few years, I devoured techno-thriller after techno-thriller—Harold Coyle, Dale Brown, Stephen Coonts, etc. And I looked up to the characters, and I realized a lot of them had gone to West Point and/or the Naval Academy, institutions that were usually treated with a hushed reverence. I’d already read a bit about West Point, going through my Grandpa Brennan’s Civil War books, and reading various pocket biographies from various school libraries. But reading Tom Clancy and the authors that he led me to, coupled with a trip to (gasp) the Naval Academy with my Boy Scout troop in 1989 that bordered on a spiritual experience, got me hooked on the notion of a military career. This sort of thing impressed people, and I wanted to see if I measured up.

Then, somewhere in there, I read Ralph Peters’ Red Army. Here was a Trojan horse, a novel that appeared in the same section as the techno-thrillers but didn’t have any American characters, or good guys and bad guys—just people (who happened to be Soviet) going to war against other people. The technical specifications of their weapons were far less important than the vibrancy of their thoughts and feelings and fears. And somewhere in there I stumbled across Stephen Hunter’s Point of Impact, which led me to his earlier books, and some of the best and most nuanced thriller writing out there.

In fairness to Tom Clancy, his characters were getting at least somewhat more complicated. (There was a hint of suspicion in The Cardinal of the Kremlin that Jack Ryan, Clancy’s CIA analyst alter-ego, might be capable of wrongdoing. This turned out to be a red herring, but in the books after that there were at least bad Americans, and some marital difficulties (based entirely on misunderstanding) between Jack Ryan and his wife.)

Still, it became increasingly clear that his heroes were Irish Catholic Americans, and everyone else was basically good or bad based on whether they helped or hindered said heroes. Jack Ryan’s hints of impropriety never hardened into anything approaching real misbehavior, and John Clark (Ryan’s dark, edgy “operator” shadow) and his sidekick “Ding” Chavez, though far more willing to get their hands bloody, were still at least understood to be doing what needed to be done to some pretty bad people. They all seemed to be vehicles for Clancy’s ego gratification, ways for him to do vicariously on paper all the things he didn’t do, but perhaps wanted to, in real life.

The last Clancy book I read cover-to-cover was Debt of Honor. Its climax (a madman piloting a jumbo jet into a national landmark) proved oddly and sadly prescient many years later, but at the time I was just upset at what seemed a transparent deus ex machine to elevate Jack Ryan to the presidency. Clancy and his spawn—the franchise character that could do no wrong—were starting to feel deeply unsatisfying; their flights of quasi-literary fancy somewhat obviously disconnected from real-world behavior. I’d started checking out critical opinion before reading books; I got into Hemingway and Conrad.

And yet I’d also started writing, and some of Tom Clancy’s writing tips actually stuck with me. For the man actually gave some decent advice. “The only difference between fact and fiction is that fiction has to make sense” was one observation I particularly enjoyed. And he had some good book recommendations: Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny appeared on some list of Clancy’s favorite war novels; I devoured it as a high school senior, and it remains a favorite of mine. (Wouk unfortunately started dealing in stock characters himself, with The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.)

Also, my dream of a military career hadn’t died. Somewhere in there, I got in touch with the West Point Admissions Department, and I realized that if I wanted to get in, I’d have to transform myself from a bookish and antisocial high school freshman to an athletic and involved high school junior. Like many of my generation, I became a sad little resume padder, throwing myself into activities I didn’t entirely enjoy because I wanted to impress a lot of people I’d never met, in order to earn a diploma and a commission that would impress still more people. (When Wes Anderson’s Rushmore came out, I identified; I felt like I’d been only marginally less hyper-involved than the comically over-extra-curriculared Max Fischer.) In retrospect, I think I wanted to look so good on paper that nobody would say no to me in the real world—to be a Jack Ryan of sorts, life imitating art. (Or rather, artifice.)

I did a good enough job that West Point took notice. I qualified in every area but physical fitness, and after my first failed Physical Aptitude Exam, I practiced my pullups and my kneeling basketball throws and my standing long jump until I finally qualified. I applied for a nomination through my congressman, Bill McCollum, and when his office called, my family threw a surprise party of sorts to celebrate.

My first thought was: “Oh, fuck, now I actually have to do this.”

June 29th, 1995, my first day as a new cadet, was a blur of yelling and screaming; as far as I could tell, I had the longest hair of any of my incoming classmates, and I remember staring at my reflection that night in the mirror of my second-floor room in Bradley Barracks, seeing a shaved stranger in a gray P.E. shirt and godawful glasses, and wondering: what the hell did I get myself into?

It soon became apparent that I was not a natural military man. I had plenty of classmates who were, who were as high-performing in real life as Jack Ryan and his ilk were on paper, and who were often likeable, funny, and genuinely decent people, to boot. As for me, I just hung in there. To quit would be to admit I’d made a mistake. And that seemed a fate worse than death. I’d staked everything—or my pride, which at least felt like everything—on measuring up, and I was not measuring up.

I also soon realized that West Point was a far more complicated place than I’d realized, or than any techno-thriller writer might have attempted to convey. The granite facades were real; some of the people behind them were equally impressive, but most were far more flawed and complicated and interesting. And I felt like I’d been lied to by a decade-plus of after-school specials and Just-Say-No-To-Drugs PSAs; I’d kept myself on the straight and narrow all through high school to get in there, and plenty of my classmates had been partying, drinking and smoking weed and even maybe experimenting with acid, and we’d all ended up in the same place.

I first got drunk in September of 1995, on a Cadet Catholic Choir field trip to Avalon, New Jersey. Magically, all the fear melted away; for the first time in a long time, I felt like everything was the way it was supposed to be in the world. Every guy was my friend, and every girl was someone I could hook up with. More experienced cadets kept an eye on me and made sure I didn’t overdo it, and I was able to get up and put on my uniform and sing the next morning without embarrassing anyone, even though I was still drunk. I didn’t get drunk again until the Army Navy Game that December. Some yearlings in my company threw a hotel party, and I got obliterated: drinking tumblers of imitation Wild Turkey, seeing in snapshots, puking on my Long Overcoat and on the floor of the Doubletree Hotel in Philadelphia.

Reading-wise, I’d left Tom Clancy behind; the Academy’s English Department didn’t really interest me (too much rote recitation and overanalysis of poems, no real creativity for coursework), so I became a bit of a literary autodidact, reading Faulkner and DeLillo and Joyce in the bathroom before lights-out, or in stolen snippets between coursework. (I was a European History major, and, because West Point hasn’t ever given up on being an engineering school, I took a 5-course Nuclear Engineering track.) And I’d write here and there; I won an English Department prize for prose for two of the four years I was there, and I ended up in a cadet-published literary magazine. Clancy did appear once at the cadet bookstore for a book signing, and I would have swung by, but I had some sort of summer training drill practice that day. My buddy Jubert Chavez did get to swing by the signing table; he said Clancy saw his name tag and asked him if his first name was Ding.

On leave, I was getting as drunk as possible pretty often; once in a blue moon, I’d do so on post as well—I remember one absurdly incomprehensible afternoon of football tailgating, and a house party at a colonel’s place a week before my 21st birthday where I didn’t even remember leaving or going back to the barracks—but very rarely, because people who did that sort of thing too often got kicked out, and I didn’t know who or what I’d be without a West Point class ring, something visible that the world could see to know I was important. I did want to be in the Army; I did want to do well. But the gap between how well I felt I was doing (decent academic grades, middling military and physical ones) and how well my ego wanted me to be doing (Macarthur-like performance) was so great that I was full of fear most of the time. Every once in a while—Christmas dinners with the Corps of Cadets, Taps ceremonies for deceased cadets—I’d remember that I was part of something really big and really cool that was much, much larger than me. But those moments were few and far between. Plenty of cadets got in serious trouble for drinking offenses over the course of my four years at the Academy; how I avoided disciplinary action entirely, I’ll never know. By all rights, I deserved to be kicked out. I thank God I wasn’t; it would have killed me.

What got me wasn’t drinking, but sleeping. I’d been nodding off in almost every class ever since junior year of high school; I did well enough on tests that my grades didn’t suffer, but at West Point it was much harder to skate by. Here and there instructors would throw chalk at me, or I’d get the dreaded admonition “You’re gonna get your whole platoon killed.” (One of those things that sounds over-the-top most of the time, but still nags at you when you know it’s an actual possibility.) I talked to the doctors about it during yearling (sophomore) year but didn’t follow up; I knew if they uncovered anything then they’d just kick me out. But as a firstie (senior), I felt a little more comfortable getting it looked at; I figured with all the money they’d invested in my education, they’d at least have an incentive to fix me up. I was wrong.

I went to Walter Reed in January of 1999 and had a sleep study done. Coincidentally enough, while I was killing time between naps (I had electrodes glued to my skull, and they made me nap at two-hour intervals to see how fast I went into REM sleep), I came across an issue of People magazine about Tom Clancy’s divorce from his first wife, Wanda. There were tidbits about his wife’s generous birthday gifts, and about his drinking and extramarital affairs. I was flabbergasted. And when the sleep study was done, the doctor told me I had narcolepsy and told me I’d probably be medically boarded out of the Army—I apparently could not only nap on demand (like a lot of cadets), but I also almost always went right into REM sleep right away, rather than following a normal sleep cycle, and I also had sleep bouts which were triggered by intense bursts of emotion. Again, I was flabbergasted.

West Point graciously decided to let me graduate without commissioning me. I got a free ride on the taxpayer’s dime and didn’t have to pay it back, which did wonders for my self-loathing. I eventually took the test to become a Foreign Service Officer, but I didn’t pass that, and later, still, I interviewed for an analyst position with the C.I.A.; they thanked me for my application but didn’t take me. (Memories are hazy, but I may have taken their online writing test while hung over, or at least the day after one of my standard weekend nights of blowout drinking, which probably didn’t help.)

It took me a while to do something about the drinking. I won’t get into all the gory details, but among other things, I learned I had to drop my own facades, and keep my insides matching my outsides—to concentrate less on impressing the world and cleaning up the outside, and more on cleaning up the inside, all the resentments and fears that kept me in collision with everyone and kept me getting into the same types of relationships over and over and over again. And I learned about another C.I.A., a nickname for a nebulous but common demographic within the secret societies of people in recovery. There, C.I.A. stands for Catholic Irish Alcoholics.

I did all this to myself, of course. I can’t blame anyone else. Not Tom Clancy (whom I once thought of as a father to my military ambitions), or my own father (whose considerable virtues I often overlooked because he wasn’t any kind of Clancy-esque hero, but rather a devoted and successful executive). There was a gap between how I saw me and how I wanted the world to see me. That gap—between fantasy and reality, or perhaps between fantasy and self-loathing—eventually felt insurmountable. I tried to fill it by ignoring my inner voice, and instead doing things I thought would impress the world. And when that didn’t do, I chose to fill it with alcohol.

I’m basically trying to be the anti-Tom Clancy now—to deal not in flawless stock characters, but in real and interesting ones, ones who actually tell us something about ourselves, rather than just telling us about the author. And publishing-wise, I’m trying to do something completely different. Clancy eventually epitomized the author-as-brand, the writer who could sell not only books, but also movies and miniseries’ and video games, solely because their name was on the cover in big clear letters, and regardless of the fact that they weren’t necessarily the one who created the contents, or the fact that the contents weren’t necessarily good. Whereas I’m aiming to put out memorable books, books that may not sell quickly, but that will be around for a long time. (Or, to put it in musical terms: we can’t all be the Beatles, but I’d rather be the Velvet Underground than the Dave Clark Five.)

Still, I have a lot of sympathy for Tom Clancy these days. When I read the article in People, I’d thought of him as a hypocrite and a blowhard. But when the obituaries started coming out, I read every one I could find, and a lot of other stuff he’d said. “The only way to do all the things you’d like to do is to read,” he said, and I found myself nodding my head. Also, “writing isn’t divinely inspired—it’s hard work.” And particularly this one: “Nothing is as real as a dream. The world can change around you, but your dream will not. Responsibilities need not erase it. Duties need not obscure it. Because the dream is within you, no one can take it away.” I’m sure that, whatever his faults, he was at least a more interesting and complicated person than his characters. I like to think he’d have read and enjoyed my books. And when I get beyond the particulars and look at the overarching similarities, I see in him what I still see in myself—another writer refusing to give up on the dream.