Lament for Tom Clancy

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Usually I can’t wait for guys like Tom Clancy to die.

I saw the news of his death on Twitter, the modern equivalent of the doleful ringing of church bells, and I was surprised at what I felt. I mourn Tom Clancy the writer, not the man.

One of the most difficult things about working for progress on all fronts is getting held back, stymied, stigmatized, and lied about by old conservative white guys with guns. I have long comforted myself with the idea that these people are marching steadily toward death, and leaving behind tolerant and war-weary grandchildren.

It is uncomfortable to love the art of someone you can’t stand. Tom Clancy and I could never have been friends. His politics put him too deep into the camp of people who can’t get enough war and machines for war and peace through war. However, that same fascination with the military, with the unshakeable soldier, and with international tensions made Clancy a great writer.

It is also uncomfortable to admit that an author’s first book was always his best, especially when that author has died, but it’s true. Tom Clancy caught the brass ring on his first try in 1984 with “The Hunt for Red October.” It is not an exaggeration to call it a perfect novel. It is perfectly paced, it is populated with gorgeously lifelike characters, and it is a masterfully crafted narrative of suspense that keeps you on edge even upon re-reading. He folded real-life politics, speculative fiction, and loveable tough guys into one of the best American thrillers a reader can lose herself in.

If you’ve never read Tom Clancy, you’ve probably seen a movie based on his work. He was responsible for “Patriot Games,” “Clear and Present Danger,” “The Sum of All Fears,” and of course the film version of “The Hunt for Red October,” as well as the video games of the same titles. If you’ve never had any contact with him, he is still part of your consciousness. He influenced every writer of political thrillers, military narratives, and “Olympus Has Fallen” style disaster porn you’ve ever seen. Tom Clancy screwed with our idea of national security early and and often, even writing a terrorist weaponizing a commercial jet back in 1994.

I read Tom Clancy as a young teenager. I read Red October as an adventure and a thriller. I didn’t know why his strategy worked on me, but it worked like the proverbial charm. I read that book in one marathon sitting. When I got out of my chair, I saw that I had left impressions by gripping the arm. When I learned of his death, I re-read the novel. It went faster this time, and I was horrified by the underlying politics and creeping propaganda that had slid past the filter of my young mind. However, all of Clancy’s Red Scare and might-is-right rhetoric fell away and I was seduced again by the story. I felt the same sensation I do when listening to really misogynist hip-hop or watching one of Mel Gibson’s less awful films. The man and his art are separate, even when he can’t stop jamming his politics into it. The man dies, the art lives on.

So another paranoid old man, another lifetime member of the NRA, another registered better-red-than-dead voter has died. But Tom Clancy was also a gifted storyteller, a visionary, and a master craftsman with a head full of heroes to share.

He is mourned by people like me who loved his work but might have had a hard time shaking his hand. In the end it is only art that connects us. And death cannot sever that.