"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Big Mac as spy novel
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
State of the Union
By Brad Thor
Atria, 335 pp, 25 dollars

You can't eat like a gourmet all the time--sometimes you just need some junk food.

By the same measure, even the most highbrow readers usually like to leaven their literary diet with the occasional piece of genre fiction mind candy.
But there is good junk food and bad junk food. Some genre fiction, like a Wolfgang Puck pizza, rises above the status of junk food to become a gourmet delight--John Le Carre's better books, the complete works of Raymond Chandler--while other authors like Ian Fleming manage to concoct a quality cheeseburger that satisfies our cravings with perfectly prepared original ingredients. Then there are those hacks who slap a chunk of Spam between two slices of Wonder Bread, garnish it with liberal amounts of processed cheese and ketchup, and claim it's food.

Best-selling thriller author Brad Thor hasn't quite sunk that low, but his by-the-numbers State of the Union bears an uncanny resemblance to a fast food chain burger: Both are bland, standardized and unoriginal, but having taken that first bite, you will finish quickly and feel briefly satiated, if a little queasy.

State of the Union is the kind of book that exists not to change the world or inspire the human race, but to fill time in an entertaining way on a train or airplane, occupy the mind while sunning oneself at the beach or while stuck inside on a rainy afternoon. It makes no pretensions to literary greatness, nor should it.

Thor's recipe mixes equal portions of Tom Clancy's technophilia, John Woo's cinematic action, and George W. Bush's worldview, spiced with brand names, lame banter and misplaced travelogues, potboiled to reduce humor and served half-baked.

State of the Union is Thor's third chronicle of the adventures of Scot Harvath, former U.S. Navy SEAL, ex-Secret Service agent and all-American he-man. Like all the other characters in State of the Union, Harvath is straight from central casting, despite attempts to add depth with a cliched backstory about how he feuded with his father--also a SEAL--because the two were so much alike. After his father was killed in a training accident, Harvath followed in his father's footsteps. Was it out of a desire to please his father or was it out of guilt or a sense of duty? Thor gives the reader little reason to care.

The author thanks more than a dozen former and active soldiers, law enforcement officials and technical experts for their assistance at the end of the book and painstakingly details all the standard tactical maneuvers, operating procedures, structures and protocols used by the alphabet soup of government security agencies that figure in the book, often sounding like he's cribbing from a training manual.

At other times, the book reads like an catalogue. Harvath doesn't just use a flashlight, he shines the 225-lumen beam of his M3 Millennium SureFire flashlight. He doesn't carry a switchblade, he carries a Benchmade Auto AXIS folding knife. Not a single weapon, aircraft or piece of gear is mentioned, without being described in the most exhaustive technical detail. Thor has definitely done his homework, but homework makes for dull reading.

The plot hangs on the idea that those old reliable bad guys, the Russians, didn't really lose the Cold War but have just been playing possum all these years. An overbearing, ruthless Russian general, oh-so-inventively nicknamed Rasputin, has smuggled a bunch of suitcase nukes into the United States and built an impregnable and totally unexplained air defense with the intention of blackmailing Uncle Sam into withdrawing from the world stage.

The president seems more concerned with the economic effects this could have on the nation than the prospects of mass death, but his first priority is to find a way to strike back against the godless commie reds. Further Republican values are evidenced by Harvath's reluctant and embarrassed visits to a whorehouse and a porno film studio in which virtually nothing of a sexual nature is ever mentioned and by the good guys' willingness, even eagerness, to use torture and violence in pursuit of their goals.

Add to this the obligatory gorgeous blonde Russian spy trying to head off the fiendish plot for the sake of the motherland and her dead father's good name, the sinister German torturer, the abducted father-figure suspected of betraying his country, all related in Thor's tepid, overdramatic, irony-free prose and the result is a something that reads more like a summary of an action movie script than a novel.

In his defense, Thor does manage to keep the action coming at a steady pace and the set pieces push all the expected buttons.

While never quite reaching the comically overwrought level of cheesiness found in such action pulp Spamburgers as the Mack "The Executioner" Bolan or Death Merchant books or the films of Steven Seagal, Thor's Scot Harvath series does give the impression that it should come wrapped in waxed paper with a side order of greasy french fries.

Not recommended for those watching their diets, but sometimes you just want a hamburger. And it's probably no worse than the in-flight movie.

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