Gene Lyons
August 23, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Should all of the country’s vaunted high-tech, computerized weapons systems — the real heroes of Tom Clancy’s novels — ever fail, America could do worse than to load copies of Executive Orders into catapults and hurl them over the enemy’s walls. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a big book. How big? Whopper-class: 874 pages, with six or eight (depending on how you do the counting) simultaneous threats to the survival of the American way of life.

We’re talking major crises here: a Japanese airliner crashing nose-first into the U.S. Capitol, taking out not only the President but also both houses of Congress, most of the cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and all nine Supreme Court justices. And that’s merely page 2. Then, before the smoke and rubble have cleared, Iran engulfs Iraq to become the United Islamic Republic and immediately begins scheming to conquer the world. Meanwhile, a deadly virus breaks out from sea to shining sea, right-wing militiamen conspire to blow what’s left of the government to kingdom come, a sleeper agent inside the Secret Service plots to assassinate the new President, and terrorists scheme to kidnap his youngest daughter…. Suffice it to say that President Jack Ryan’s first weeks in office are busy ones.

Yes, that’s right, President Jack Ryan. Having reluctantly accepted the vice presidency, the brilliant, heroic CIA man — the protagonist of seven Clancy novels, beginning with The Hunt for Red October, as well as three films — has inherited the top job by default. Not that he’s become a politician, understand. ”It’s all a…game here,” he complains to his chief of staff, ”and the object of the game isn’t to do the right thing, the object of the game is to stay here.”

No sooner does Ryan begin putting the government back together than America’s foes begin to act up. The latest mad ayatollah mistakes him for a weakling, as do the leaders of India and China. Only Ryan’s old enemies in the KGB recognize his formidable will and deadly anger.

Once the hero’s bona fides are established, Clancy’s convoluted plot lumbers along like a runaway freight train on a 2-percent grade — very slowly, but with impressive weight and momentum. For all of the author’s bombastic rhetoric and the Tom Swift-meets-Charles Dickens sentimentality of his characters, there’s an earnest, gee-whiz quality about the novel that’s hard to dislike. (Whether it’s movie material isn’t clear: Paramount, which owns the Jack Ryan character, hasn’t exercised its ”first call” on the book.) When Clancy researches a topic — whether it’s the care and feeding of the Ebola virus, the interpretation of satellite intelligence photos, or the performance capabilities of the M109A6 Paladin 155-mm mobile gun — he tells the reader all there is to know about it. Are the gadgets more interesting than the human characters? Always. Is the outcome a foregone conclusion? Absolutely. The way Clancy’s millions of readers see it, that’s part of the fun. B

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