Billionaire defense contractor Nicholas Donner and his deputy, retired general Frank “Fidel” Thornton, dread the spreading anarchy in the Mideast, post-Arab Spring. When a grieving Iranian-American laborer blames Muslims for the violence surrounding his family, Donner’s party turns him into a walking weapon. Then they coldly point him at the holiest site in the world’s second largest religion. Pax Americana apparently ensues
In his fourth novel, Jac Simensen tries to capture Tom Clancy’s magic in a bottle. But at 182 crowded pages, this feels more like an outline waiting to be completed. Clancy’s shortest novels run three to four times this length, for good reason. Because Simensen’s tale of privatized foreign policy involves so many contexts outside readers’ experience, it just needs unpacked. Stuff happens too fast for readers to feel particularly involved.
Because this book is so short, and events proceed at a headlong pace, I can’t review this book without spoilers. Yet Simensen builds his story on such a lattice of premises, balanced like a Jenga game, that I can’t touch one without disturbing them all. Start with the premise of freelance national security through strategic violence. Governments have a name for non-state actors who use violence to achieve political ends: terrorists.
Donner and his company are meant to be the heroes, or at least the protagonists, of this story. Yet watching them manipulate despondent widower Rusty Samadi into carrying their bomb for them, they exactly resemble al-Qaeda. These are our heroes? Donner also gets by on threats, force, and payment under the table, just like Don Corleone. We never get a horse’s head in bed, but we do get a murdered cat.
Samadi’s grief was, I admit, well written. Simensen spends long early chapters establishing the personal backgrounds of his large ensemble of characters, and when Samadi’s wife dies in front of him, I really felt it. But after seventy pages of slow build, the whole story suddenly accelerates beyond credibility, and huge story blocks get elided. The process of training an English-speaking American to pass as a Muslim happens entirely offstage.
This loss of realistic detail extends to the whole story. Donner’s family realizes he intends something terrible, and does everything possible to intervene. Then they learn he means to kill thousands in their holiest place of worship. This causes them moral qualms that they swallow with remarkable alacrity, going in the space of one sob from wanting to stop it, to accepting it as the best hope for a bad situation.
And I cannot credit, as Simensen does, that when a dirty bomb destroys the Ka’aba in Mecca, global Muslims would blame Iran. Surely Muslims realize that the Islamic world’s most publicly pietistic government would not destroy their faith’s holiest site, planted evidence notwithstanding. Yet Simensen depicts Muslims retaliating against Iran, while America sits and gloats.
Simensen’s Donner even mouths historical inaccuracies to justify his self-righteousness. He claims that Ronald Reagan, with Arab connivance, manipulated petroleum prices to starve the Soviets and end the Cold War. But history says that oil strikes in Siberia, Prudhoe Bay, Nigeria, and the North Sea broke the 1973 OPEC embargo. I can’t tell whether Donner made the error, or Simensen, or even if it’s an error rather than deliberate self-deception.
In lit-crit we speak of the “intentional fallacy.” This means I can’t proclaim to know the thoughts in an author’s head from reading his words. I cannot know that Simensen thinks Yanqui terrorism would restore American dominance, or that the ends justify the cynical Realpolitik means. But because he presents no other alternatives, and ends the story with General Thornton trying to franchise his freelance jackboot diplomacy, it sure seems likely.
When I read the back cover synopsis, I feared I held yet another ethnocentric paean to vigilante diplomacy. It wouldn't be my first. To his credit, Simensen shows enough subtlety of thought to avoid seeming to actually endorse the violence underpinning his plot. But because he runs so short, who can say what he does intend. This is no love song to righteous violence; it’s just a heated rush.
Simensen does himself no favors keeping his hugely complex thriller so short. Because he does too much too fast, we never share his characters’ journey, and thus never see their choices as plausible. Despite his politics (Clancy, too, is a nationalist firebrand), Simensen could have sold this. But he gave me nothing to consider but how unlikely I find his premise, and that’s what I take from the experience.
Edit: After first writing this review, I received an e-mail from the author, in which he said this:
My intent was to show Donner and company as cold blooded terrorists and their cynical actions equal to Islamic extremist's terrorism. (My condemnation of their actions may have been too subtle for that to come through.) I also wanted to explore the proposition that today's ultra-rich may have the capability to take on activities previously only possible by governments, (for evil or good.) To some extent, The Gates Foundation is doing this today.... perhaps it wouldn't be too big a next step for some multi-billionaire, xenophobic, nut-case to decide to directly take on who he/she perceives to be enemies of the United States?
I guess, in hindsight, I can see that. But I really did not get that in the reading experience. I think this, too, contributes to my opinion that the book is too short to accomplish the author's goals, because a longer book that lingered more on the long-term implications might have made that clearer.