Earlier, when I heard that Tom Clancy had died I tweeted the following from the NOW account: "Author Tom Clancy has died at 66. A sad day for the kind of literature you buy at airports." I have since deleted it, following some concern that it was insensitive. It wasn't meant to be.
Airport fiction is a thing: a kind of a literary subgenre. Thick, pulpy and quickly paced, airport novels are meant to pass the time people spend in airports and places like airports, places where people spend their time sitting, waiting. And to call Clancy - or Michael Crichton, or Robert Ludlum, or Danielle Steel, or Stephen King - a master of this sort of literary diversion shouldn't be taken, necessarily, as a knock or an affront to their livelihoods. In their way, these novels have a valid social function.
There's even an extended passage early in Patriot Games where recurring Clancy superhero Jack Ryan squirms uncomfortably through a transatlantic flight, slaking the boredom with a novel. "He fished the paperback out of his pocket and started reading," Clancy writes. "That was his one sure escape from flying."
So yes. Tom Clancy, the best-selling author of airport novels (and some non-fiction) has passed away at 66, sources are reporting. The cause of death is not available at this time.
As someone who grew up in Clancy household, where the de facto answer to the question of what to buy dad for his birthday/Christmas/Father's Day was always "the new Clancy book," I know that Tom Clancy means a lot of things. Seeing his thick, hardbound tomes scattered around the house provided certain weirdly lofty notions of what novels were.
Novels were big, serious things. Not serious in the way of serious-serious social novels, not in the way of novels of ideas, like Gaddis or whatever, but just in terms of mere heft. Clancy books had gravity. They were about determined men making tough decisions in difficult times, capturing the immensity of global events like the Cold War and international terrorism. (I remember Clancy being a frequent talking head in the days after 9/11, apparently because his 1994 book Debt Of Honor featured an eerily prescient terrorist attack involving a hijacked Boeing 747.)
Even absent the literal authorial presence of Clancy, the words "Tom Clancy" came to connote this kind of Hawkish seriousness, ballasting film adaptations of The Hunt For Red October and Patriot Games and video games in the Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon series. Clancy was not only a quintessential writer of airport novels, but the archetypal armchair general: a card carrying NRA member who dedicated books to Ronald Reagan and blamed the American political left for 9/11, the kind of guy who would dress in military khakis and wear mesh-back caps embossed with the names and profiles of battleships. To read (or watch, or play) a Clancy was itself an archly masculine endeavor.
Still, there is in Clancy's character a sympathy that cuts the sour taste of all his exhaustively detailed, highly technical jingoism. The fantasies of Clancy's novels are, if essentially conservative, easy enough to understand: his was a chaotic world that could be tamed by control, stewarded toward greatness by the hard-nosed leaders prepared to make the tough calls. His novels were their own kind of porn, his comprehensive insider knowledge of military and intelligence organizations amoung to the macho equivalent of all those turgid scenes that push alone airport erotica.
Command Authority, the latest of Clancy's Jack Ryan novels, and a book bearing maybe the most Clancy-ish of Clancy titles, is available December 3 - in time to wad that phonebook-sized gap in the Christmas stockings of dads everywhere.