Tomahawk, David Poyer

St. Martin’s, 1998, 371 pages, C$33.99 hc, ISBN 0-312-17975-8

I remember reading David Poyer’s The Gulf a long time ago. I also remember not caring too much for it: not enough action, ambiguous ending, bad plotting and useless subplots. That certainly explains why it took me so long to read another of Poyer’s books. This one is better than The Gulf. Not by much, but it’s better.

Tomahawk is a novel in the same “modern Navy” series than The Gulf which stars career Navy protagonist Dan Lenson. As this novel begins, sometime during the late eighties, Lenson is recalled to Washington to work on the development of the Tomahawk missile. Confronting Lenson is a career that’s not going anywhere, growing doubts about the morality of military force and the last tatters of a painful divorce. As he falls for a peace activist and indications of a spy start swirling around the office, what’s Lenson to do? Quit his career or keep working in something with which he doesn’t agree?

I certainly wasn’t expecting much from Tomahawk. Late eighties setting? Pulse-pounding procurement action? Musings on the nature of force? Give me a break: I read military fiction for other reasons. Heck, I read military techno-thriller for fun. Give me something interesting.

Even the beginning of the novel doesn’t inspire confidence, showing a Lenson sinking deeper in self-doubts, stuck in a project attacked from all sides. You can throw as many spies, peace activists and journalists as you want in the mix, there aren’t too many ways of making a weapon development process sound sexy. (Although Stephen Coonts came damn close in The Minotaur)

It’s almost amusing to see Poyer try everything he can think about in order to juice up his inner-beltway storyline. Sometimes, it works: One of the book’s standout sequence show our protagonist surviving a terrible Canadian snowstorm. Another highlight comes later in the book as an espionage sting goes spectacularly wrong. But Poyer isn’t perfect, and so other attempts to inject artificial interest in the material don’t fare as well. A random death comes as a convenient shock (it’s later revealed not to be so random, but still convenient), but the vigilante reaction of the protagonist comes as a dumb idea made even dumber by a secondary character’s lack of self-preservation sense. Being a military fiction writer isn’t easy when readers expect you to shoot, blow or trash something every hundred pages, and Poyer copes only moderately well with the challenge.

Most of Tomahawk isn’t nearly so interesting one way or another. The stale atmosphere of the late eighties isn’t overpowering, but it’s certainly there. Lenson goes to meetings, briefs people, follows night classes, goes to parties, learns how Washington works, deals with his growing doubts and generally experience a mid-life crisis for the benefit of the book’s readers. Yet the novel dares to be something more, something closer to a character study. It is simultaneously more and less ambitious than other military thrillers, almost taking the book in mainstream fiction territory at times.

The surprise is that even with its low-octane content and misguided high-energy spikes, Tomahawk ends up deserving some attention. The various controversies surrounding the testing of cruise missiles in Canada has long since abated (it’s hard to argue with a completed, successful project), but Poyer brings them back in the forefront, along with the palpable sense of a genuinely new revolution in weapon-making. We’ve had fifteen years to get used to the idea that an American president can point at any point on the map and say “destroy this” without endangering any human life in the process, but that is a very new development in warfare, and this book shows a slice of this revolution.

I found myself absorbed in Lenson’s adventures and the way Poyer describes the Washington power game almost despite my most sarcastic intentions, regardless of the sometime sketchy plausibility of the book’s developments. Military fiction may be about people shooting at each other, but there’s a decision-making component in military strategy that ought to be explored more often like Poyer does. Don’t be fooled: Tomahawk won’t make me rush to grab every single Poyer book in existence. On the other hand, I just became far less averse to the though of picking some of them up at the next second-hand book sale.

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