Against All Enemies, Harold Coyle

Forge, 2002, 412 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34169-7

Whenever the United States get around to fight their second civil war, I want it to be like in Against All Enemies: Dull, pointless, with few casualties and lasting only a few days. But what works for me in reality certainly isn’t what I’m looking for in fiction. Harold Coyle’s latest novel is, quite simply, a bore and to bore readers is the most unforgivable thing a so-called “thriller” writer can do.

The good news is that Against All Enemies brings back Scott Dixon, the hero of many of Coyle’s best novels (Sword Point, Bright Star, The Ten Thousand, etc.) The bad news is that there was absolutely no reason to do so. In fact, given the amount of material that Coyle voluntarily ignores in re-establishing his character and his family, it seems even worse than useless. While the “adventure in Mexico” (Trial by Fire) is very briefly mentioned, almost no mention is made of Dixon’s previous adventures in Iran, Egypt and -very importantly- Germany. Like with Clancy and Brown’s latest works, the perils of juggling an imagined military history concurrently with our “real” history get to be a strain. Best to play in an entirely new universe every time, otherwise the amount of material to conveniently forget gets to be too obvious to ignore.

Given that the emphasis, this time around, is on Dixon’s son (a brand-new army man by the time the novel gets underway) one would have thought that this would have been a perfect opportunity to get a brand new cast of characters. But no, and the contrivances are annoying. Here, Dixon’s wife (the always-beautiful-and-perfect Jan Fields-Dixon) is depicted as having a national-class TV show from the American Midwest. By sheer coincidence (of course), she finds herself part of the catalyst of the political crisis which will precipitate the Idaho uprising her husband and son will have to fight. As if that wasn’t enough, another returning character, Nancy Kozak, conveniently happens to be around (as a reservist, no less) whenever the action heats up. Ah, the curse of too much character background… Beyond “kill your darlings”, some writers need to be told “ditch your universe.”

Now here’s the interesting part: The previous Dixon novel (Code of Honor) dates from 1994. While Against All Enemies is copyright 2002, Coyle mentions in his afterword that it was originally written in 1996. What happened next in Coyle’s career is well-known: a detour through civil war fiction, followed by a return to contemporary military fiction in the late nineties. (Alas, with works such as the wretched Dead Hand) One can speculate as to why it wasn’t published in 1996. And one can speculate very nasty reasons indeed…

But why speculate when we can read the result? Even with years of revision, Against All Enemies still feels like a half-hearted attempt at a military thriller. While the premise is fantastic (A second American Civil War! What else do you need?) and so is the thematic intent to explore the conflict between serving one’s country versus the needs of one’s community, the result falls short of expectations. Any expectations.

While you’d think that the rebellion of a state against the federal government would be caused by something big, something worth fighting for, Against All Enemies gives the impression that this comes from a governor’s oversized ego and a botched raid by the FBI. While you’d think that Coyle could milk a lot of juice from this type of premise (USA fights a war with itself! Films of modern weaponry at 11!), it ends up being a few planes and a bunch of tanks against a militia. Not very impressive, not very interesting. Even as the sort-of-antagonist governor eyes Dixon’s wife, you’d think that there could be some place there for very personal stakes. Naah. Coyle! You wuss! I accuse you of holding back! If there’s one more rationale for ditching the old universe, it’s this: With brand-new characters, you can blow them all up if you want.

I really wanted to like this novel, and there are in fact a few passages I like here and there. But overall, Against All Enemies is just a snore, and that’s the worst thing I can say about a thriller. I can’t even work up any kind of hate for it like I did for Dead Hand (which was a much, much worse novel, though). At best, I won’t remember any of it in a few weeks. And that’s just too bad. I want my fiction to be striking and my reality to be unmemorable, not the other way around.

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