I’ve had a rough year. I had two dogs die, my house has needed some expensive repairs, and my habit of closely following the news has turned into daily exposure to toxic waste. We all crave simple comforts in difficult times, and I’ve fallen back into an old habit: when I’m in the mood to read comforting trash, I reach for Tom Clancy. And after the current bender, I think we should talk about him a little.
Right now, through time and space, I can hear the question you’re asking yourself: why do I care about the work of some hack writer of right-wing airport trash who’s been dead for a decade? And that’s a good question, one I’ve been wrestling with inside my head for a while now. I have a few solid answers: first, because the work of said dead right-wing hack writer really does provide a perfect encapsulation of one of the dominant forces in our dyspeptic, sliding-through-disasters-towards-even-greater-disasters political system, and to understand that is to understand another corner of the current ongoing shitshow. Tom Clancy’s books are by, of, and for Boomer Dads, and if understanding the mind of the Boomer Dad isn’t sufficient to understanding what the hell is happening in this country, I think it’s at least necessary.
More than that, though: I can’t prove if this is a case of causation or just correlation, but it strikes me that the raw ubiquity of Tom Clancy a few decades ago may actually have helped get us into this mess to begin with. I don’t know if he was just giving (a big section of) the people what they wanted, or if he was actually shaping thought (my guess, as with all things cultural, is some of both), but I know this: in the 1980s and 1990s in the rural Midwest, I saw a hell of a lot of Tom Clancy paperbacks on racks in grocery checkout lines and exactly 0 copies of the National Review. Clear and Present Danger was the bestselling book of the 1980s. That has to mean something.
And finally: I think it’s weird and worth examining why I—and other people I talk to about this—find this crap so comforting. What’s the draw?
SO LET’S TALK ABOUT THE CLANCY OUEVRE
Let’s start by taking a quick look at the body of work itself. Tom Clancy’s story actually starts out as a fairly heartwarming one, a variation of the standard American writer fantasy. He was an insurance salesman with an interest in the military and a yen to write. Carving out time on the side, he worked on a thriller about submarines and espionage between the United States and Soviet Union.
The manuscript, which became The Hunt for Red October, was shopped around to various publishers and roundly rejected until it was picked up and published by the US Naval Institute Press in 1984. Against the odds, the book exploded, even gaining praise from Ronald Reagan (I am emphatically not a fan of Ronald Reagan, but I can definitely see how it would both be a cool thing and be a big sales driver to have him publicly saying nice things about your book). Proceeds from having a phenomenal best seller and the option money from a pretty fun movie adaptation allowed Clancy to stop selling insurance and write full time.
The Hunt for Red October, a straightforward story about spies and submarines, is Clancy’s best, most fun work. October centers on two characters: a Russian (well, Russian-Lithuanian) submarine captain who has become disillusioned with the Soviet system, and Jack Ryan, a regular-guy CIA analyst. The Soviet captain shuffled offstage to become a recurring character after this book, but Jack Ryan turned into the cornerstone of Clancy’s books. Remember his name.
Clancy followed Red October up with Red Storm Rising, a non-Jack Ryan book that is the World War III-Wargame version of the godforsaken phenomenon of someone recording their Dungeons and Dragons sessions and then writing a book about it. After Storm, all of Clancy’s novels were set in the “Ryanverse,” tracking the development of Jack Ryan’s increasingly less plausible career or occasionally fleshing out the backstory of a secondary character.
Patriot Games (1987), a prequel, told the story of how a brush with Irish terrorists got Jack Ryan involved with the CIA to begin with (the book doubles as a 540-page boner for the English Royal Family, including several scenes of Jack Ryan in full author-stand-in mode becoming pals with Prince Charles). The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988) is a straightforward CIA-vs-KGB spy story centering on antiballistic missile defense programs. Clear and Present Danger (1989) postulates that the war on drugs could be won if we just let the military handle it.
Danger also marks the first of the series of books where Jack Ryan sheds his “everyday-guy” persona (albeit an everyday guy who’s a self-made millionaire, was in the Marines, and is bestest personal pals with Prince Charles) and begins vaulting up the ranks of the executive branch of the United States government; here, he becomes one of the top people at the CIA. In The Sum of All Fears (1991), he’s the #2 man at the CIA, essentially running it, as a dubiously-motivated coalition of Palestinian, Native American, and East German terrorists work together to nuke the Super Bowl.
1993’s Without Remorse is another prequel, set in the Vietnam era and giving the backstory of CIA agent John Clark, another frequent Clancy supporting character; it turns out that drugs and traitorous liberals caused problems for America in Vietnam.
In our universe, a terrorist attack that knocked down two buildings and killed 3,000 people kicked off a military expansion and a series of wars that have yet to fully end, 18 years later; in the Ryanverse, a nuclear attack that kills at least 100,000 people in the city of Denver somehow leads to shifty liberals cutting the military so drastically that India and Japan team up to push us around in 1994’s Debt of Honor. Fortunately, by this point, National Security Advisor Jack Ryan is on the case to stop them; he does such a good job that he’s named Vice President just before a disgruntled Japanese pilot crashes a plane into the US Capitol during the State of the Union address (to give Clancy credit: he did a poor job of predicting what the aftermath of a 9/11-style attack would be, but he was awfully prescient in predicting the method). Jack Ryan, one of the few survivors, is sworn in as president.
The books continue, but I’ll stop there. From Debt of Honor onwards, whatever elements that were fun about the books previously are gone, as they march onward into right-wing paranoia and the kind of terminal ongoing-franchise-small-universe syndrome where the children of original characters are pairing up romantically. Eventually, co-authors stepped in, making the transition all the easier for other authors to carry on after Clancy’s death. I have to come clean; I haven’t read any of those. The returns diminish pretty sharply in the 1990s, and the wise reader knows when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em (an aphorism quoted by Jack Ryan in Patriot Games when he’s teaching a class on naval strategy).
I’ve been glib relating the plots of these books, but I want to be clear: before the rot set in, Clancy’s books are fun to read, depending on how your reading taste is calibrated. They’re always kind of silly and very sexist (and MAN will we be talking more about that soon), but Clancy has a lot of authorial skill in whisking a reader along through intricate, zippy plots. Consider an enthusiastic Amazon review of Clear and Present Danger (review headline: DRUGS): “Some intense action, military and flying, with lots of political infighting and intrigue. Good story by a master story teller.” Every book comes covered in jacket copy praising its page-turner qualities.
The real world is a complicated, morally ambiguous place, and it can be relaxing to step into Clancy’s world of clear right and wrong (however damaging this point of view might be when it seeps back out into reality). And it’s often fun to spend time with enthusiasts who want to tell you all about the thing they’re interested in, and how they work; such is the case with Clancy, although the things he’s interested in are submarines and helicopters and nuclear bombs. No less an intellectual darling than David Foster Wallace (himself a different kind of problematic white male writer) took time to praise the skill with which Clancy could park the narrative for a while to walk you through the way a nuclear bomb works.
All of Clancy’s books are pulpy trash; but up until Debt of Honor, a surprisingly high percentage of them are very fun pulpy trash. It’s no surprise that these books were popular, especially during the Reagan and Bush years. By accident or design, their appeal was mainly to white men; but that’s a pretty large book-buying demographic, and (unfortunately) also the group with the most hands on the levers of power.
JUNK FOOD IS BAD FOR YOU
Tom Clancy wrote some of the whitest, malest books ever written. I don’t think this was intentional; if anything, he seems to have specifically tried to be inclusive, with bizarre results. But despite his efforts, his books are a crystallization of white male straight Christianity (Catholicism, to be exact) as the default point of view. There’s Jack Ryan himself, of course, the fairly clear authorial-insert/aspirational character (I am 95% sure that Jack Ryan’s house as described in Patriot Games is Tom Clancy’s house, down to the name of the street it’s on). Ryan’s virtues, of which we’re reminded constantly both by his internal monologue and as other characters tell him how awesome he is (always a sure sign of an authorial insert) are that he’s smart (partially because of Jesuit education), that he’s principled (unlike anyone else in government except for most of the military and a few people at the FBI), and that he’s bad at politics because he’s a good man.
It’s not just Ryan, running around exemplifying white male virtue. The second most-prominent character in Clancy is CIA operative and former SEAL John Clark, who is essentially Jack Ryan with more military experience and less education (like Ryan, and like Clancy himself, Clark constantly muses on his Irish ancestry, by the way). And, crucially, Ryan and Clark exist in (and climb to the top of) a white, male, straight, Christian power structure. Presidents, CIA officials, FBI officials, members of the military, diplomats, business leaders; the supporting casts of Clancy’s books are overwhelmingly white, male, and straight (usually Christian, but occasionally Jewish), even more so than in the real world.
Other points of view can exist in the books, with varying levels of tolerance, but they’re defined by their deviance from whiteness, maleness, or straightness. Thus, Robby Jackson isn’t a fighter pilot, he’s a black fighter pilot (who edges into very poorly-written Black Vernacular English when he’s angry). Helen D’Agustino isn’t a Secret Service agent, she’s the female Secret Service agent (who’s pretty but jokes around like Just Like the Boys and sure has a pair of brass ones). Alan Trent isn’t just a powerful Congressman, he’s a powerful gay Congressman (whom both the omnisicient narrator and Jack Ryan both hold at arm’s length with a clearly struggled-with disgust, falling on words like “proclivities” and “eccentricities”). In a very real sense, whenever a person of color appears in one of these books as a member of the military or law enforcement, you can almost hear the narrative saying “he’s one of the good ones.”
In the context of any one given individual book, this is just a case of a crappy job at representation. In the aggregate, though, it becomes something much larger and worse: a solid enshrinement of a point of view as the correct one.
The collected works of most writers have a metanarrative, an overarching theme that emerges if you look hard enough. The metanarrative of Hemingway is that it’s tough to be a manly-enough man; the metanarrative of Peanuts is that Charlie Brown must always lose in the end. With Clancy, the metanarrative, the secret key to all of the books’ plots, is that Jack Ryan (or John Clark) is always right. Usually, he’s right because of things he learned from Jesuits or from going to Mass, or just from values and abilities handed down from his Irish-American policeman father. The books add up to thousands of pages’ worth of argument that things will be ok if we would just listen to the straight white Catholic guy. Beyond Ryan, the homogeneity of the supporting cast matters because of the low-key way it communicates that this is the way things are, and the way they should be.
BUT WHAT ABOUT BOOMERS?
Tom Clancy, born in 1947, was a boomer. Jack Ryan’s fictional birth was in 1950, putting him squarely in the box. But it’s much more than fictional demographics that make Jack Ryan a Boomer. Clancy’s bone-deep Boomerism seeps through into both the authorial stand-in character he wrote and the narrative of the booms themselves. Here are a few of the character traits that flag Jack Ryan (and the omniscient narrator of Clancy’s books) as Boomer Dad exemplars.
The books are obsessed with the logistics of getting from place to place. If an airport can be name-dropped, it will be, as well as the airlines involved and the models of planes being flown. Trips by car will always have their route discussed, with attention paid to traffic, efficiency, and how the driver knows a special shortcut. Spend five minutes talking to a Boomer dad, especially a Midwestern one, and this will all become immediately familiar.
Similarly, Ryan in particular and other characters in general are always pleased when they get a good parking spot. Better yet, a reserved one. This is inherently something worth crowing about every time it happens.
A vanishingly high percentage of characters in Clancy used to smoke, had to stop, and are constantly looking for a stress-induced excuse to start up again. This immediately brings to mind the stereotype of the henpecked Boomer Dad who just wants to enjoy a smoke but suffers under all the well-meaning health scolds in his life.
The same thing holds true, but for higher stakes, with alcohol. Jack Ryan spends a disconcerting amount of time (especially for an authorial-insert character) reassuring himself that he’s not an alcoholic.
I can speak from direct experience that real-world Boomer Dads take football at least as seriously as religion (my childhood home had holes punched in the wall from instances when the Nebraska Cornhuskers did something disappointing). Both Jack Ryan and the narrator are obsessed with football; it’s taken for granted that all American characters care deeply about what’s up in the NFL, and foreign characters are bemused but impressed by it. The Sum of All Fears’ conflation of an attack on America with an attack on the Super Bowl is pretty revealing on this front.
At one point, an entire narrative is parked so that we can hear about how Jack Ryan mows his lawn, and how said lawn-mowing is crucial to his sense of identity.
All over both Boomer political discourse (and humor) and the Clancy narrative is a persistent sense of racial and gender essentialism. Irish people are like this, Italian people are like that, Black people are monolithic, and so on. The foregrounding of Ryan’s and Clark’s Irishness has already been noted. No less weird is the way an American naval officer who happens to have an Italian last name idly muses about shooting people who annoy him with a shotgun, the way his Sicilian ancestors would have; nor the way the interior monologue of Clancy’s lone Native American character is constantly wandering into reverie about living in tipis and hunting buffalo. Most uncomfortable of all is the repeated fetishization of muscular Black drill instructors; one of them is nicknamed “Son of Kong.”
A character in The Hunt for Red October makes withering comments about how that rock stuff’ll ruin your ears, while the poor owner of said ruined ears congratulates himself for owning some “vintage Janis Joplin tapes.” It’s hard to get more Boomer than this.
The degree of this varies from book to book, but the shadow of Vietnam, perhaps the prime Boomer formative touchstone, looms over Clancy’s oeuvre. Military characters and John Clark reminisce about it, both about specific military-utilitarian things they did (this helicopter flight reminded the Colonel of a mission back in ‘Nam!) and about the way the military was in bad shape in those days because of poor morale and drug use; this latter mode generally comes up in a context that makes it clear that America is being Made Great Again. Military action undertaken during the course of the plots of the books is often contrasted with Vietnam, in that it this time it has a purpose, or now the gloves have been taken off, or whatever. Underlying everything is the familiar Boomer refrain that the military was stabbed in the back by the public and crooked politicians in Vietnam.
The gender politics of these books merit their own essay, but the Boomerness of such is firmly established by the fact that feminism is still referred to as “women’s lib” in books Clancy wrote in the 1990s. The state of “liberated” women in Clancy is extremely Male Boomer: they’re free to get jobs and excel at them, but only if they get their womanly chores done (it’s stated explicitly that Cathy Ryan, a world-class surgeon and professor of surgery, is also solely on the hook for feeding the Ryan kids in the morning and getting them ready for school in the morning, as well as cooking dinner; other jokes scattered liberally throughout the books make it clear that this is the case in every Clancyverse household). Every time a female character is introduced into a scene, no matter what her job is, her appearance and dress will be remarked upon; it’s not uncommon at all for male characters to muse about what she’s like in bed. Clancy women who are sufficiently cool and competent are fine with some on-the-job sexual harassment, and are happy to dish it out as well as taking it. The shitty old basic assumption of “men are rational, women are emotional” is taken for granted, and nearly leads to nuclear war in The Sum of All Fears (which also features a fascinating-but-slightly-outside-of-the-scope-of-this-piece woman-to-woman confrontation where being accused in public of owning a vibrator is the most devastating interpersonal putdown on the planet). And throughout Clancy, whenever possible, women be shoppin’.
At this late date, it occurs to me that maybe all of this Boomer-dadness is part of the books’ appeal as comforting trash. Reading them really is like spending time with a Boomer Dad. You know he’s kind of crusty and old-fashioned and wrong about everything, but there’s still a fundamental comfort in being around someone who’s so goddamned confident that he can handle everything, and who inexplicably thinks that mowing the lawn is an important identity marker.
OK. These are Boomer books. So what? Since at least 2008, one of the defining faultlines of American life has been the struggle over whether the white, straight, male, Christian point of view was going to remain the default one for the American power structure, or whether things would be opened up to such a point that it was a way to be but not necessarily the way to be. Part of this, of course, was spurred by the election of Barack Obama and the freakout it triggered in the American right (what was birtherism, after all, but a frantic attempt to prove that no, that man isn’t really our President). Equally, and very intertangledly, it marks the generational estuary when the Boomers began to age out of power and Millenials aged into it (as with all contemporary generational analyses, Gen X is just a bystander here). And the alignment is quite clear: white, straight, male Christian centrality is an extremely Boomer outlook, while tolerant pluralism sits comfortably in the millennial weelhouse.
If the howling shitshow of the American right for the past ten years has largely been a Boomer counterreformation raging against the dying of the light, it stands to reason that we can understand the mess we’re in by understanding the mindset. And Clancy gives us that. Jack Ryan certainly isn’t Donald Trump. But Ryan’s (inevitably right) actions once he becomes President aren’t far removed from things Trump has done or proposed doing: cut taxes and regulation to get government out of the way of business, which knows best. Renegotiate trade deals so that sneaky foreign countries stop taking advantage of goodhearted Americans. Pump money into the military and finally take the gloves off and get tough with our enemies (this one lines up more with Trump’s campaign rhetoric than with his actual course of action in office). And on and on. Jack Ryan’s perspective is one that most Trump supporters would find comforting and appealing; the world where Jack Ryan, Boomer Dad, is always right is one where most MAGA hat wearers would enjoy living in.
Moreover, the worldview of these books is the worldview of a big chunk of the Republican Party. These books might be the soil from which Fox News grew, or they might be another plant that grew out of the same soil. Again, I’m not sure of the cause and effect, although the ubiquity of these goddamned books 30 years ago had to have had some impact. I do know that the idea that most members of an ethnic group are inclined to act the same way is one of the fundamental underpinnings of immigration hysteria.
Also, American Conservatism has changed in some fundamental ways over the past few decades, getting steadily more paranoid and less attached to reality; consider the drift from George H. W. Bush’s conservative Realpolitik to Trump’s model of international relations as reality show, surprise twists and all. Bizarrely, the course of Clancy’s books mirrors and anticipates this shift, with their slow but steady move from “here’s a story about action between rivals in the late part of the Cold War” to “here’s the latest combination of unrelated international terrorists and malefactors who have cobbled together an unlikely scheme to stick it to America.” Parts of The Hunt for Red October read like something put together to teach submarine crew members how to do their jobs; most of Debt of Honor reads like it was jointly written by Lou Dobbs and Jim Cramer as they worked their way through a large bag of cocaine.
I started out talking about these books as trashy mental comfort food. And they kind of are. Having a poor relationship with my own real-world Boomer Dad (my last communication with him was an email in 2002 where he offered to pay for me to change my last name), it’s comforting at first to read straightforward adventure stories where there’s no moral ambiguity and the Boomer Dads are in control. But after serially powering through a mountain of Clancy, I feel like I did the garbage-literature version of the (mythical?) thing where your parents catch you smoking and make you smoke an entire carton of cigarettes as punishment. This total immersion does strange things to one’s brain. You can’t help but stare into the face of the fact that the comforting Boomer Dad is a closed-minded racist with preposterously sexist ideas and a disastrously simplified view of how the world works.
And then you open a news site and look at the world we live in, the world wrought by the Boomer Dads drunk on Fox News. And if you’re like me, you reach for The Sum of All Fears thinking that maybe if you can figure out what the fuck they’re thinking you’ll be less battered by it all.