Who does Tom Clancy think he is — Leo Tolstoy? His latest literary opus, The Bear and the Dragon, shares a few key traits with Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Both deal with an invasion of Russia (in Tolstoy’s case, it’s by Napoleon; in Clancy’s, China). Both burst with almost as many Russian names as a Moscow phone book (Clancy: ”Kamenev and Ordzhonikidze had been tortured under the eyes of Yagoda and Beriya”). Oh, and one other thing: Both are more than 1,000 pages long.
Weighing in at 1,028 pages, this really is a Bear of a book, but its global scope nearly justifies its immense size. It begins, as so many good world wars do, with an assassination attempt. The Red Chinese regime targets Russia’s chief spymaster, Sergey Nikolay’ch Golovko. The rocket launcher misses and blows up an ex-KGB pimp known as Rasputin instead, but an international crisis escalates. So why does the Dragon (China) attack the Bear (Russia)? It seems the Chinese economy is on the verge of collapse, and its only salvation is to seize eastern Siberia, recently discovered as the site of both the world’s biggest gold mine and an oil field that ”makes East Texas look like a fart in a tornado.”
Of course, it’s up to President Jack Ryan to resolve the conflict. Last seen in 1996’s Executive Orders, Ryan is an appealing election-year figure, a paragon who governs based on ”plain common sense” rather than political calculation. Perhaps most importantly, he’s not a lawyer. Clancy depicts the former CIA analyst as a regular guy — in every sense of the phrase: ”Like every other man in the world,” we’re told, ”when he woke up in the morning the first thing he did was head to the bathroom.” A devoted family man, the President has only one vice, bumming Virginia Slims from his secretary to smoke when he’s under stress. He’s as much a post-Clinton fantasy as The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen), and he’s equally winning.
Many other characters from past Clancy books also reappear, most intriguingly John Clark, antihero of his last solo novel, 1998’s Rainbow Six. The head of a secret, NATO-sponsored antiterrorism team, Clark is a more complex, morally gray character than Ryan. He dutifully accepts an assignment to dismantle China’s ballistic missiles, objecting to nuclear weapons on the grounds that he ”prefer[s] to do his killing close enough to see the bastard’s face.”
Although Bear features more flashbacks than David Crosby’s autobiography, several new characters are introduced, including Lian Ming, the secretary and mistress of a Chinese senior minister. Ming is seduced into spying for the U.S. by Japanese-American CIA operative Chester Nomuri. Unfortunately, the Nomuri-Ming affair leads Clancy into Danielle Steel territory, and love scenes are clearly not his strong suit: ”He took her face in his hands and looked hard into her dark, suddenly deep eyes, and what he saw was woman.”
Still, Ming stands as the closest thing to a sympathetic Chinese character in a book alarmingly peppered with such racial slurs as ”yellow barbarians,” ”Chink bastards,” and ”slant-eyed motherf—er.” Naturally, any thriller needs villains, and China is one of the few evil empires left in the post-Cold War world. But do we really need to be reminded three times that Chairman Mao was a pervert who enjoyed deflowering young virgins? (”It could have been worse — at least they were girls,” Ryan observes in a homophobic aside.)
Clancy deserves credit for developing a number of compelling African-American characters, among them Ryan’s Vice President, ex-Navy pilot Robert Jefferson Jackson, and the Bernard Shaw-like CNN correspondent Barry Wise. Yet his women still need work; they’re almost all secretaries, hookers, or wives. First Lady Cathy Ryan doesn’t even get a line of dialogue until page 350: ”How was your day, Jack?” But what do you expect from a guy who still calls feminism ”women’s lib”?
The Bear and the Dragon starts draggin’ when Clancy shoehorns in an anti-abortion subplot, yet it eventually builds to an excitingly cinematic climax as Ryan toils to bring the world back from the brink of nuclear war. The only trouble is, I kept picturing Harrison Ford from Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and there’s little chance he’ll play Ryan again (he already did the chief-exec thing in Air Force One). In fact, Ben Affleck has signed to take over the Ryan franchise with an adaptation of an earlier, pre-presidential novel, The Sum of All Fears. The 28-year-old Affleck won’t be old enough to occupy the White House until 2007, but it’ll probably take that long to boil down a 1,028-page book into a 120-page screenplay anyway. B