Ben Affleck is Jack Ryan, and Tom Clancy couldn’t be happier. Or maybe it’s a coincidence that just as the 30-year-old Affleck took over the part from the 60-year-old Harrison Ford in ”The Sum of All Fears,” the author has come up with a novel, Red Rabbit, that leaps back to the later years of the Cold War, when Jack was a 32-year-old CIA analyst. Clancy has made no secret of the fact that he felt Ford was too old for the role, so it seems likely he pictured Affleck (and a lucrative movie deal) while penning ”Rabbit.”
Then again, maybe the author realized he’d written himself into a corner by putting Ryan in the Oval Office with 1996’s ”Executive Orders”; Presidents don’t usually find themselves in the middle of thrilling action scenes. Unfortunately, neither does ”Rabbit”’s Jack, who’s enlisted to help smuggle a KGB employee out of Russia in the early ’80s. He’s told his ”only job will be to watch what happens,” and, sad to say, that’s pretty much all he does.
The defector is Oleg Zaitzev, a communications officer with information about KGB chief Yuri Andropov’s plans to assassinate Pope John Paul II for expressing solidarity with the anti-Soviet labor movement in his homeland of Poland. Codenamed Rabbit (”the CIA term of art for a person wanting a fast ticket out of whatever bad place he found himself in”), Zaitzev provides the title for a novel that moves more like a tortoise. At 618 pages, ”Rabbit” is roughly half the size of Clancy’s last doorstop, ”The Bear and the Dragon,” yet you know you’re in trouble when it takes nearly 500 pages to reach this line: ”The mission was now fully under way.”
In fact, ”Red Rabbit” offers so many scenes of people sitting and talking about what could happen to Rabbit that you might mistake this for a John Updike novel (there’s even a chapter called ”Rabbit Run”) if a single line of it were well written. Clancy would no doubt plead realism in his defense. ”It wasn’t like the spy novels,” he harrumphs in the book. ”The job of a CIA officer was composed of a good deal more boredom than excitement.” Which may be true, but this is a spy novel, Tom.
Clancy seems less inclined to generate intrigue than to wallow in post-Sept. 11 Cold War nostalgia. While Reagan is never referred to by name, he’s clearly intended to be ”Rabbit”’s unseen President — Andropov even derides him as ”that f—ing actor.” The writer adopts a wearying told-ya-so tone, straining to prove the moot point that the Soviet Union really was an Evil Empire. He stereotypes the Russkies as unclean, godless lushes (”you can’t tell a Russian to stop drinking any more than you can tell a grizzly bear not to s— in the woods”), although he notes that their subways ran on time.
Clancy does readers a further disservice by setting Rabbit in the past: He renders his trademark obsession with gadgets obsolete. Some technogeeks read Clancy novels primarily to acquire data about the latest military hardware. This obviously can’t be incorporated into a period piece that takes place in an era when fax machines were cutting edge.
Such a low-tech, action-starved novel might be more readable if Clancy’s flabby prose style packed more muscle. He’s much like Jack, a part-time scribe whose ”word mechanics were serviceable — but not particularly elegant.” It doesn’t help that Rabbit is peppered with anachronisms like ”kinder and gentler” (which didn’t become a catchphrase until the first Bush administration).
But Rabbit’s biggest problem is that it lacks any semblance of suspense. We know Pope John Paul II won’t be assassinated, even as Clancy attempts to stack the odds against Jack preventing it. At one point, protecting the pontiff in mobbed St. Peter’s Square seems so impossible that Jack thinks, ”This mission is a real s—burger.” He took the word right out of my mouth.