Friday, September 30, 2011

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

Title: The Hunt for Red October
Author: Tom Clancy
Publisher: United States Naval Institute Press (1984)

After Michael and I both brought up Tom Clancy in our reviews last month, I guess it got our minds thinking about how nice it would be to re-visit an old favorite. So, as usual, I will share a few words about the book and Michael will tackle its film adaptation.

For better or worse, I'm in an expansive and nostalgic mood. Earlier this evening (writing on the 29th) I was at my county's annual event celebrating adult literacy learners and the volunteers who help them reach their goals. As a lifetime avid reader, it is a joy to me to help folks in my community who want to improve their literacy skills. It reminds me of the wide world and endless possibilities that are open to us through literacy and through books. I'm also approaching my 500th blog post which is an arbitrary "milestone" at best but one I plan to celebrate by remembering a professor who inspired me and took my relationship with the written word to a new level.

All of these things put me in mind to remember my first experience with The Hunt for Red October and Tom Clancy rather than review the book based off my re-reading from two weeks ago. Any regular visitor of these joint post efforts will recognize what a reversal this is. Michael is the nostalgic half of this blogging partnership and I am the one very much in the moment. But, I suppose, we all have instances of departure from the norm and trips down memory lane. I hope you'll have the patience to get through this one with me.

The Hunt for Red October is a quintessential techno-thriller (one of the first?) and launched Clancy's very successful career which now includes a video game series (this really has no relevance here but I still enjoy seeing his name on video game covers). Jack Ryan is an analyst with the CIA. His particular talent lies in assimilating data from various sources into a cohesive picture of possible outcomes. His uncanny perception leads him to suggest to his bosses that the Red October, a Soviet sub recently launched, is headed to the US for a purpose almost unthinkable: defection. Cue awesomeness and fierce action. Ok, well, awesomeness for sure but this is a techno-thriller so you're as likely to find yourself in an action scene as you are to find yourself in a room with really smart people looking at charts and specs. If you're new to the genre don't be put off: the best thing about techno-thrillers is the balance. This is not a non-stop coaster ride ending in one big climactic finish. Techno-thrillers build their plots, characters, and action with deliberation and, best of all, with a lot of smart people doing really smart things. As a teen, Clancy was my first experience with techno-thrillers. I've never forgotten it.

The Hunt for Red October was Clancy's first published novel but not the first I read. It was either The Cardinal of the Kremlin or Clear and Present Danger that I read first. I can't remember at this point but I do remember how I came to learn of Clancy. I was a sophomore in high school and my english lit teacher told me about Clancy. What is pertinent to this story is that no matter what I thought about Clancy I would have said I loved him. Please bear with 15yo Rachel and her raging crush on Mr. English Lit. I was not alone in this: any student in my school who liked male members of the species had a raging crush on Mr. English Lit. It could have been collective insanity but it was probably a little bit reality, too. I mean, this guy did model to help pay for college. Anyway, there was no need for me to manufacture any interest - I was hooked from the get go.

[Aside: I am objectifying Mr. English Lit here but he was, and I'm sure is, a fantastic teacher. Most people liked the books he recommended because he cared about his students, paid attention to who they were and helped them find works they could connect with.]

It wasn't just the fancy words, the inside views of gov't agencies, the most awesome Baddies ever (oh, how I continue to lament the loss of the Soviets as literary adversaries), the gadgets, the easy-to-root for Ryan, or the America Fuck Yeah! attitude of the books. It was the very satisfying experience of what I mentioned above: following a group of really smart people doing really smart things. You'd think this would be a staple of almost any thriller but, sadly, it is not. And Clancy had such variety! He had Jack Ryan all over the place working on problems (and probably has but I no longer keep up with Ryan's exploits). Clancy didn't shirk on the supporting characters either. Ryan wouldn't even show up til almost halfway through a book sometimes. Clancy had stories to tell and Ryan was the thread that bound them together, however, he didn't allow that thread to limit the scope of the plots.

The Hunt for Red October served as an excellent intro to just how far out Clancy would take his plots. The story opens with the newest and most advanced of the Soviet's sub arsenal leaving port. At his helm is one of the Soviet's most accomplished captains. And in the captain's mind is his plan for defection. Holy crap! Talk about raising the ante from the get-go. How truly satisfying this ambitious plot was when I first read it and how fun it was to pull it off my shelf and re-visit it this month.

So here we are at the end of my thoughts and I realize very few of them were about The Hunt for Red October and its content. I am sure I'll be back on track next month but for now I'm reveling in the memories. I'm thinking about a 2 decade love affair with all things USSR/Russia related, which has only intensified through a visit to that remarkable country and my current literary tastes. I'm thinking about how so many people grew up fantasizing about visiting London or Paris (both of which are quite lovely) but I could never get Moscow out of my mind. I'm thinking about when I first walked into Red Square and saw St. Basil's Cathedral with my very own eyes and how amazing it was. Thanks, Mr. English Lit and Tom Clancy. May our feet always follow where our minds desire to go.

Click here for an index of the joint post series


  1. Love it! Perhaps, my wife is wrong about the nostalgia gene she says I've inherited (and passed on through my chromosomes to my children). Maybe, it's actually viral... and you've now become 'infected' ;-). We must inform the CDC.

    Anyway, it's great you've changed up for this book review. It's also very interesting about your... ahem, fascination with a certain Lit teacher. In high school, I had a crush on my American Lit instructor (ah... Miss W---, named obscured to protect the innocent). I can't say I picked up on any novels she recommended, but that has little to do with the fact that I (and a number of male classmates) loved going to her class. Anyway...

    Clancy novels seem almost a right of passage for our generations (though, I'm at a loss to imagine what passes for that now in later generations). But
    TC did capture something unique with his mix of history, military jargon/hardware, and the political environment of the time. Your America Fuck Yeah! reference is spot-on, Rachel. So, too, about Jack Ryan between the thread that binds it all.

    Re-reading (this time in audiobook) the novel I did see a decent number of side/support characters being planted in this novel that came forward after this. His premise was crackerjack in its originality and executed well in the plotting. And, he only got better at it with subsequent novels. Clancy did have a great feel for the U.S./U.S.S.R. Cold War dynamic, and evolved beyond the mustache-twirling phase.

    That's great that you got to visit Red Square. How awesome is that! Great personal review, Rachel.

    p.s., since October is Halloween month, perchance you'd like to return to the horror genre for our next gig? If yes, how are these as possibles (you can suggest others, too):
    • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, filmed as The Haunting (1963)
    • Hell House by Richard Matheson, filmed as The Legend of Hell House (1973)
    • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, filmed as The Innocents (1961)
    • The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, film version 1962
    • Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin, filmed in 1968
    • Carrie by Stephen King, filmed in 1976
    • The Ruins by Scott Smith, filmed in 2008
    • A Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson, filmed in 1999

  2. I've never read any Clancy. Nor Grisham, nor Nora Roberts. I think I kind of bounce off the super-mega-ultra-uber sales numbers of these authors.

  3. Hey Michael - Glad you enjoyed my little turn of nostalgia.

    Right of passage for later generations... don't you have a direct line into a later generation? What are your kids reading? :)

    I don't think I mentioned this over on your blog but I completely agree with your comment about TC's rather lackluster dialogue and clumsy characterization. It all comes together but not exactly deftly. The movie definitely polished that up. I, too, think he was good at capturing the "political environment of the time." Specifically, I think he was great at capturing the "popular" environment of the time. There is reality and there is what we get in the media. I think he channeled both well but excelled in the popular aspect of it.

    That's cool that you saw more supporting characters this time around. When you have such a straight-up hero in the main role I think the supporting cast by default ends up being one of the best things in the book. It's easy to like Ryan and I think that's deliberate. The other characters inhabit more of the gray spaces.

    Great idea for October!!! I'd like turn of the screw or rosemary's baby. How 'bout you make the final call?

    M - I can certainly understand that! Many blockbusters have never seen the light of my interest but I wasn't quite as "tuned in" to the market when I was a wee teen and so didn't even know what a blockbuster was in terms of books at that time so it took me a while to realize that Clancy was rocking it in the big time.

    I just read my first Nora Roberts in the last year. It was better than I expected but not something that got me interested in her backlist.

  4. Okay. The coin flip says... Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin. Thanks, Rachel.

  5. Sweet! That's sitting in my Kindle just waiting to be read! So much easier to take notes with Kindle. yay!

  6. I loved your review, Rachel! I've never read Clancy, but the movie adaptation of this book is in my husband's and my top ten films. I've always worried that reading the books vs watching the movies would be a bit of a trial because I worried about too many details. With a movie I get to see a lot of the science, tech and details without them having to be spelled out. Does that make sense?

    Anyway, another great tandem post!

  7. Hi Christine! Thanks for stopping by and the kind words. I completely understand what you're saying in regards to details. And you're quite right, you'll get a ton in any Clancy novel. If you are interested in trying him out, I can suggest a couple of his that are lighter on details. In addition, if you don't mind skimming a bit, you'll be able to avoid even those bits of details in the "lighter" titles. You can skim over the technical details and not lose the bigger story. Or you can just stick with the movies and not worry about it at all. :)

    Glad to hear about the fun you had at B'con!