Monday, May 5, 2014

Gunmetal Wizards and Muggle Democracy

Tom Doyle, American Craftsmen

How to review a book like this? Man alive. When I think of Tom Doyle’s brisk, Tom Clancy-ish storytelling, I get tangled on his distracting, frankly discouraging backstory. But when I want to disparage his setting, with its bleak implications for us Muggles, I remember how his main narrative propelled me vigorously along. Doyle leaves me with a hodgepodge of conflicting responses I cannot easily reconcile.

Cpt. Dale Morton, USArmy, wizard and assassin (!), survives a suicide run, forcing him to ask: since when does the Army stage suicide runs? Since his command falls under an all-knowing Pentagon oracle, he realizes America’s military command has a mole. Going rogue, he finds an unlikely ally in an Iranian exile’s pretty daughter, and a foe among Washington’s Puritan elite. Captain Morton must brook no opposition in uncovering top-rank treason.

I cannot deny Doyle’s riveting drama. He mixes techno-thriller canon with allusions to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and more classic American authors than I can name. (19th Century AmLit is my weak suit.) He has the double-time chase sequences and apocalyptic confrontations we expect with airport reading, balanced against smart, well-paced moments of character development, including a nicely understated, guy-friendly romance.

Oh, and what characters they are.

Character surnames seem oddly familiar, which Doyle helpfully explains quite early. Captain Morton, Major Endicott, and Colonel Hutchinson are lineally descended, respectively, from Thomas Morton, John Endecott, and Anne Hutchinson, founding New England colonists and rough contemporaries. One wonders why Doyle doesn’t go whole hog, putting everyone under General Cotton Mather and President Anne Bradstreet. Family dynamics, including surnames, remain unchanged after nearly 400 years.

Moreover, these honored American ancestors were all wizards. They, and their descendents, used magic (called “craft” herein) to manipulate history. A Morton ancestor shepherded Washington across the Delaware. A Morton assassinated Stonewall Jackson, thus preserving the Union. Morton, Endicott, and Hutchinson ghosts re-fight the Civil War nightly in a West Virginia hollow; if the Union ghosts ever lose, America will fall. Screw your efforts; only these First Families truly matter.

Holy shit. Is Doyle saying a sorcerous Anglo-Saxon aristocracy has secretly manipulated American history since pre-Revolutionary times, with George Washington’s blessing? Yes. Yes he is. And he doesn’t mean it in “Freemasons are poisoning the wells” terms; he considers this eon-spanning conspiracy an unrecognized American blessing. This benign collusion has ensured Norteamericano prosperity and peace since before we were a nation. Morton, as Doyle’s mouthpiece, simply anticipates Americans’ grateful acquiescence.

This massive, intergenerational consortium undermines Doyle’s superficial über-Republican ethos. Dale Morton repeatedly boasts his loyalty to the Constitution, yet his very presence in the Pentagon bespeaks anti-democratic inclinations. If a cabal of élite bloodlines makes every important national decision while preserving our very existence, that fundamentally torpedoes the national myth of tenacity, freedom, and Horatio Alger ingenuity. Having smart, resourceful characters doesn’t matter if their greatness comes from their pedigree.

Conservatism doesn’t bother me. Tom Clancy, notwithstanding his often naive trust in technology, was both a conservative nationalist saber-rattler and a cracking good storyteller. But the conservatism perforating Doyle’s ambient background isn’t the highly principled conservatism of George Will or Paul Ryan; Doyle presents a world where everything used to be good, everything that preserves Colonial spirit preserves goodness, and any changes represent some form of decline.

I struggle to reconcile this name-dropping orthodoxy with Doyle’s admittedly ambitious, and sometimes quite progressive, story. Where much “urban fantasy” forever recycles mystery tropes, Doyle’s use of military imagery, including contemporary Iraqi settings, breathes new life into a genre suffocating under its own weight. Coupled with his vigorous, subtly wrought storytelling, Doyle’s front-story has the forward-thinking, even revolutionary, spark of modernity which his backstory lacks.

Doyle pits Captain Morton, a rogue with an intensely moral backbone and suicidal streak, against Major Endicott, a company man who follows orders because he swears by order. The characters circle one another, frequently one coincidence away from killing each other. But while Morton incrementally realizes his mission requires information he can’t access from outside, Endicott discovers damp rot inside the Pentagon’s magical hierarchy. The foes increasingly need one another.

Perhaps what you get from this book depends on what you bring in. Doyle writes with old-school American patriotism so naked, you can practically hear Lee Greenwood over his concluding soliloquy. He still considers America a land of potential and magic. But he also looks relentlessly backward, lionizing ancestral heroes. “America,” for him, is mainly white, mainly male, and entirely Tidewater East. If that’s your America, here’s your novel.

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