Running Out of Foes, Clancy Picks on Japan

TOM CLANCY misses the Russians. The cold-war drama of spy and counter-spy suited him perfectly, and his first novel, ``The Hunt for Red October,'' won millions of fans.

Since the United States cashed in on the peace dividend, however, the author has looked long and hard for a worthy archenemy for Americans. Successors he has most recently chosen include the Irish Republican Army, the Colombian drug cartels, and Arab terrorists. In ``Debt of Honor,'' Clancy settles unconvincingly on the Japanese.

Jack Ryan returns as Clancy's incorruptible hero, called upon to serve his country as national-security adviser. Not long after he assumes his post, US-Japanese trade negotiations deadlock. Japan then sabotages America's financial infrastructure, simultaneously introducing a devastating military threat that catches the Americans even more flat-footed than they were 53 years ago.

This plot line suffers, though, as Clancy stifles the book with ominous references to World War II and lingers dreadfully over Japan's insidious plans to dominate its ally. He seems bent on confirming his readers' worst fears in order to ``build suspense.''

After all, US-Japanese trade negotiations are frequently on the rocks, and Japan's long-held stubbornness over imports rankles across America. Despite all our collaboration in recent decades, Japan is still a puzzling stranger to many Americans.

Smooth, simple statements, such as this one from Ryan, make sure Japan stays that way in the minds of readers: ``Don't forget ... that their culture is fundamentally different from ours. Their religion is different.... The value they place on human life is different.''

If Clancy wants to generalize, he should also back himself up. But on most issues, especially Japan's ambiguous view of its defeat in World War II, volume takes the place of substance.

It was a bit different with the Soviets. They were strangers too, and formidable adversaries in three of the author's best-selling novels. Yet Clancy has shown a wry admiration for their tenacity and complexity; they were our equals in the spy business. In ``Debt of Honor,'' the Japanese are clever but largely deceitful, whiny, and doomed to fail once Ryan takes charge. How suspenseful is that?

When the stock market plummets, the plot does get a good deal more fun. Clancy slowly progresses from the overbearing history lesson to tactics, his specialty. Computer sabotage, a relatively new kind of crime, boggles the White House. The American financial system falls apart like Humpty Dumpty.

But fear not: Ryan has experience on Wall Street. He teams up with a mutual fund mastermind to put Humpty to rights again.

Beyond that, the book's saving grace is the submarines, which dismiss whale research for deep-sea hide-and-go-seek. Longtime Clancy aficionados will applaud the return of nuclear submarine sonarman Jonesy and his captain, Rear Adm. Bart Mancuso.

The Russians play a welcome supporting role. They are wily enough to realize that Japan could turn on them, after finishing off the US, and Ryan finds himself teaming up with his erstwhile foes.

Paranoia and suspicion die hard, however, keeping both Ryan and his Russian counterpart on their tiptoes. At times one is transported back to cold-war fiction's glory days.

Clancy weaves together his myriad subplots for a page-turning climax. The last 20 pages of ``Debt of Honor'' are indeed gripping. But given such a ponderous volume to slog through, one barely gets there.

* Kristiana Helmick is on the Monitor staff.

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