America, Stephen Coonts

St. Martin’s, 2001, 436 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-98250-X

Genre fiction is often an exercise in balancing realism against excitement. Real life is boring, doesn’t make sense and shows an annoying reluctance to pay off in dramatic satisfaction. Yet fiction that relies too heavily on dramatic conventions is more easily dismissed as unrealistic. Hence the tightrope act of any fiction writer in balancing the demands of reality versus the thrills of a good story. Ideally, it’s best to establish just enough reality to suspend disbelief, and then step hard on the dramatic accelerator.

This balance between reality and fiction is tricky to get right in any genre, but military thrillers present their own particular problems, and it’s a mark of the sub-genre’s low storytelling standards that even its best-selling authors have such a hard time succeeding. Too much realism, and the novel sinks in impenetrable jargon, uninteresting details and amiable characterization featuring idealized martial clones. Too much action, and the novel leaves reality as we understand it to end up in a paranoid fantasyland where every non-American is best killed with extreme preemptive prejudice. Dale Brown is particularly bad at this, but he’s far from being the only one.

Stephen Coonts has usually been more successful than most of his colleagues in delivering solid stories with just enough real-world foundations. While he’s been slipping as of late (Saucer and Hong Kong certainly weren’t his best efforts), the early Coonts managed a good mixture between believable realism and big-screen thrills. America, unfortunately, is closer to a disappointment than a success, even though all the elements are there for something much better.

It begins as the United States’ newest nuclear submarine, the USS America, is boldly hijacked by a group of terrorists. That in itself would be bad enough, but what’s in the launch bays makes it even worse: a bunch of cruise missiles equipped with EMP warheads.

This premise by itself wouldn’t be a bad start to a crackerjack thriller. There’s an element of originality, a built-in tension (especially if the missiles are launched in separate waves) and a good hunter/killer element. Find a good antagonist and the rest of the novel practically writes itself.

Alas, Coonts chose to burden his scenario with too many elements that only serve to defuse the tension and increase the giggle factor. There’s an underwater satellite recovery subplot that scatters the story in a direction it didn’t need (and suffers in comparison with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Bright Star), along with money-grubbing villains (some of them French, of course) whose motivations and methods don’t even make sense.

What also contributes to America‘s failure is Coonts’ annoying tendency to re-use the same characters in novels set in the same universe. I’m rarely a fan of loose series, and they make no sense in the military thriller genre: Once you’ve nuked a city, killed a president or fought a war with China, what’s left to do? Coonts has been bitten by this bad habit before (resurrecting Castro for Cuba after killing him in Under Siege) and his habit of trotting out Jake Grafton, Toad Tarkington and Tommy Carmellini for little more than secondary roles is truly starting to grate.

Worse yet is America‘s flat-line dramatic tension. The writing is limp and without energy, with scenes strung along a thin clothesline of plot. Hampered by their existing back-stories, the recurring characters are simply not placed in good positions to follow and intervene in the action. Everything feels removed, distant and telegraphed. It’s only too easy to see where the novel’s good sequences (a cruise missile attack on New York, an underwater submarine duel, a failed assassination attempt) could have been strengthened with just a little bit more dramatic glue. Instead, America often feels like the product of a tired author, a formerly hot novelist now phoning them in for an undemanding audience. After the dramatic drop in quality of his previous few novels, I can’t say that I’m surprised or even disappointed.

Still, what’s especially frustrating about Coonts is that he’s not completely clueless. Unlike Dale Brown or Patrick Robinson, his plotting is serviceable, and there are hints that he still understands the demands of dramatic tension. His writing seldom slides into jargon-heavy militarism, and intermittent flashes of interest show that there may still be hope for him. Unfortunately, I’m thrice-burned, twice-shy on his stuff. If I end up reading the follow-up Liberty, it’ll be by pure used-book-sale happenstance: like so many of the young techno-thriller punks of the late eighties, Coonts has become and old tired warhorse practically fit to be put to pasture, defeated by the twin inability to keep it real and keep it interesting.

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