Blockbuster!

I’ve just got back from a fortnight’s holiday in Tunisia. In between the camel rides and visiting the Star Wars sets in the Sahara, and in the lazy sunny spaces between haggling over a few dinars for some knock off sunglasses that will see my retinas burned to buggery and playing golf, I got through six books. On holiday I have a habit of reading books that don’t offer much of a challenge. Not what I’d call trash exactly, but nothing that’s going to trouble the narrow, emotionally bigoted minds of the Booker Prize judges, with their love of pent up tedium and labyrinthine metaphor. But, in fairness, I don’t think that’s what the authors set out to do in the first place. And when you’re all inclusive, heedlessly slamming down the vodka and coke and the Celtia, who wants to make the effort to read clever sods like Martin Amis? I don’t want four hundred pages of emotional evolution, the plot never really going anywhere, just for the sake of it. I don’t want to drag myself through 16th June 1904 over hundreds of thousands of words with James Joyce and Leopold Bloom; despite Molly Bloom’s unpunctuated sexual revelations. I don’t want to stumble through an anonymous Prague with Josef K, trying to figure out if his experiences are real or some long delusionary nightmare. I don’t want anything that’s got any work in it. I want bangs and whistles. I want a story that grips me by the knackers and doesn’t let go. I want man books. I want books that have testosterone mixed in with the ink. I want explosions, I want violence, I want edge of the sun-lounger thrills and danger, I want gratuitous sex. I want righteous revenge. I want Quentin Tarantino in paperback. I want Hollywood in my hands.

 

I read Stieg Larrson’s The girl with the dragon tattoo and The girl who played with fire with relish. Both well-written (albeit in translation from Swedish), both addictive. I’m eager for the final book in the trilogy to be published next month. I also ripped through Elmore Leonard’s Hunted in a day. Leonard with his muscle prose. Lucid descriptions all told in a street drawl. No word wasted. All good stuff. But neither Larrson or Leonard had any hidden metaphors that dissected the shackles of humanity in a capitalist world, no heart-bleeding social messages that were shoved down my throat, no equivocal essays in spiritual grace and fatalism but decent, solid fiction. The pages went by at a fair old lick.

 

And then there was Clive Cussler. For all his faults I find Clive Cussler ideal holiday reading. Whenever I read one of Cussler’s books I’m immediately transported to the black beach at Kamari. I can see islands shimmering in the haze as I get staked out under a palm parasol from 9AM. I can feel my hand around an ice cold glass of Mythos and I can taste gyros and tzatziki as the day slowly grills me. I’m walking out in to the sunshine at the Rodos Palladium. I’m watching the sun make its way across Faliraki bay and dipping over the cape. Because I only ever read Cussler on holiday. The books are big, satisfying wedges to have in your hand when you have no other commitments for the day. It’s reading with the glass half-ful. You know you’ve got plenty of pages in front of you and it feels good. And you’re guaranteed that there’s going to be no long lumbering narrative, nothing that need interpreting, nothing that is left unsaid.

 

Cussler’s been knocking out thrillers for more than thirty years. They’re not what you’d call hard work to get through. Unless you hold especially strong feminist views, perhaps. Then Cussler has the ability to challenge you on so many levels. But, by and large, Cussler churns out pop corn fiction. He’s writing out of a mould created by Alistair McLean and Ian Fleming. He doesn’t write novels as such, he writes bestsellers. His signature character – heavily protected legally – is underwater salvage expert Dirk Pitt®. Dirk Pitt® is a man’s man. More than that he’s a 1970s man’s man. Think a Smokey and the Bandit period Burt Reynolds in scuba gear, packing a really big hunting knife. Only tougher and more wisecracking. With more birds throwing themselves at him. He might not be everyone’s particular brand of vodka, but he does have a certain charm. Dirk Pitt® with his dangerous green eyes and well-tanned musculature. Cussler sculpts the man he would like to be. He’s a six foot, hot look, All American Man, yeah. I bet he’s given him a really big knob, as well. In the early novels Pitt® is especially unreconstructed. I remember sitting up when I first read this from The Mediterranean Caper on holiday in Santorini a couple of years ago. Some woman Dirk® has just met (and I mean literally, JUST BLOODY MET) on the beach tells the story or how her husband snuffed it racing motor cars. Dirk® is listening intently:

 

Pitt sat silent for a minute, staring at her sad face. ‘How long ago?’ he asked simply.

 

‘It’s been eight and a half year now,’ she replied in a whisper.

 

Pitt felt dazed. Then anger set in. What a waste. What a rotten waste for a beautiful woman like her to grieve over a dead man for nearly nine years… He could see tears welling in her eyes as she lost herself in the remembrance, and the sight sickened him. He reached over and gave her a hard backhand slap across the face.

 

Her eyes jerked wide, and her whole body tensed from the sharp blow. It was as if she was struck by a bullet. ‘Why did you strike me?’ she asked.

 

‘Because you needed it, needed it badly,’ he snapped. ‘That torch you carry around is as worn out as an overcoat… you belong to everyman who turns and admires you as you pass by and who longs to possess you.’ Pitt could see his words were penetrating her weak defences… ‘When was the last time you had a man?’

 

‘Not since…’ Her voice trailed away.

 

Pitt took her as the long shadows of the rocks crept upward over the beach, shielding their bodies from the sun…

 

‘I don’t know whether to ask for your thanks or your forgiveness,’ he said softly.

 

‘Please accept them both along with my blessing,’ she murmured.

 

Hmmm. OK.

 

Cussler is the kind of writer Jack Regan or Gene Hunt would take with them to the beach on Torremolinos back in 1977, a sneaky peak at the bronzing briskets wobbling past from over the top of the pages as they reach for another San Miguel. Then back to the print as Dirk® chins another big, wide nasty, before strolling off for a knee trembler up against a ticking bomb with some big-chested heroine, forever grateful to Dirk for (i) having saved the world and (ii) having given her the best orgasm of her life. Cussler writes about the world as Jack and Gene would see it. It is masculine and Cussler’s women love it. They lap up the sweaty atmosphere and the bulging muscles. Cussler’s females like their men to dominate. To show them who’s boss. And they do. Pitt® prowls into the bedroom, a chilled Cinzano in one hand, ready to deliver a kidney punch with the other.

 

A typical Clive Cussler blockbuster – because that’s what they are, blockbusters, these aren’t novels in any Dickensian, Will Self, E.M. Forster sense of the word; these are Hollywood movies in print – a typical Clive Cussler blockbuster will include the following:

 

(1)               More often than not the story will open with a prologue set in the past. This will establish the ship wreck, lost airplane, hidden treasure that the story will hinge on. This may provide a target for the baddies and/or the means by which Dirk® will save the whole bloody universe.

 

(2)             The story will be peopled by fruity side characters that make Dan Brown’s Leigh Teabing look like something from the mind of Joseph Conrad. These characters will be important in their given field (archaeology, aeronautics, whatever it may be). May also be linked to (9).

 

(3)             Cussler’s books are buddy novels. Pitt® and his best pal Al ‘barrel chested, arms like a gorilla, heart the size of an ox’s’ Giordino are going to save the world, watching each others ‘six’ and sharing their last can of Budweiser as the face a firing squad. You better believe it.

 

(4)             Cussler will ram massive character back stories at you in the space of a paragraph. An entire autobiography, and its psychological affect on the character, will be shoe horned into a few sentences. It saves time. At, the age of ten Hank Bowen was exposed to by a clown in the circus big top, from then on he was always nervous around clowns and tents. Today, fifty years later he  looked at the marquee hosting his daughter’s wedding with fear and trepidation. He stepped inside. Oh my God, they’d hired a clown for the entertainment. Hank started to sweat.

 

(5)             Pitt® will rescue someone early doors, obviously incurring overwhelming odds and risking almost certain death himself. Though altruism will be the key motive, Pitt® will often throw himself into danger just for the helluvit, man. The person rescued will often be female and sex starved (e.g. some library bound cryptologist with big knockers who hasn’t had sight of a bloke for years). A second rescue/escape may also be on the cards later in the book. This time from the enemy’s clutches.

 

(6)             Pitt® will establish a mortal vendetta with someone. Usually a heavily muscled, oppressive foreigner (the Axis powers are still alive and kicking in Cussler’s books), who often has simmering homosexual tendencies that Pitt® seems to arouse. This may be linked to (13).

 

(7)              There will be a secret society. Secret societies are meat and good liquor to the world of Dirk Pitt® and Al Giordino. They will be linked to (6) and possibly still harbouring a grudge about losing World War 2.

 

(8)             Cussler will hurl research and knowledge at you like a monkey throwing its shit at kids through the bars at the zoo. This is guaranteed. He knows this stuff and you’re going to know it too, OK? Some paragraphs read like a Haynes manual.

 

(9)             There will be a double-cross. Some seemingly innocuous, benevolent figure will turn out to be a proper bastard. Again, this could be linked to (2).

 

(10)       Pitt®, though a big emotional slab of bachelorhood, will fall in love. But they’ll be no trips to Wal Mart with the wife and kids for Dirk (though apparently he does marry later in the series). Dirk falling in love isn’t good news for the woman in question. It’s akin to being a friend of Jessica Fletcher’s in Murder, she wrote. The woman’s days are numbered. She’ll undoubtedly kipper it before the end of the book.

 

(11)          Pitt® will lead himself and Giordino in a task that involves certain death for the pair of them. Something typical would be riding a tandem bicycle across Antarctica or taking an adapted Jet Ski across the Sahara desert. Giordino will make a wisecrack and follow without hesitation. This is Achilles and Patroclus. This is lifelong brothers.

 

(12)        Pitt® will make periodic prognostications on how the bad guys are going to get their assess whupped. These have been studied by Horatio Caine of CSI:Miami. They appear at the end of chapters and get the reader psyched up and thirsty for blood in the next round.

 

(13)        There may be some kind of genetically developed superman or superwoman. Guaranteed baddy material. These creatures will have a perfect physique but a totally blank emotional landscape. Dirk will ultimately kill this genetic abomination in some vaguely erotic way (e.g. strangle, skewer etc). These super villains may be the creation of (6).

 

(14)        Cussler will explain people and their relationships to each other in ITALICS, UNDERLINED AND SET OUT IN BLOCK CAPITALS. You’ll be left in no doubt. She hates him, he loves her. He respects him, he thinks he’s a great guy. Why waste time with interaction, take it as read.

 

(15)        There will be a big pow-wow, usually in Washington, usually at the White House or some secret war room at the Pentagon, usually involving the President gathered with experts in the relevant field (who generally went to school/college with Pitt® or his boss Admiral Sandecker – dapper little fellow with a ginger Vandyke beard; there I’ve just drawn him for you in the same detail as Cussler’s used for the past three decades. Oh, and he smokes big ceegars) where imminent global catastrophe is discussed over a chocomocca and a few fat Cubans. Sandecker will often invoke rule (11) and give the reader something to chew on. This may also be the moment that point (19) occurs.

 

(16)        Cussler will doubtless make an appearance. But these aren’t Hitchcockian, self-deprecating cameos. Oh no. Cussler saves the day. Cussler steps in at a crucial moment. Cussler flexes the financial muscles and expertise and comes through to give Dirk® a helping hand to bitch slap the bad guys just when all looks as if it might be lost and the world is wobbling on the edge of chaos. This is all part of Cussler’s romantic American imperialism. Americans do everything bigger and better. Fact.

 

(17)         Pitt® and Giordino will inevitably succeed where teams of Special Forces fail. In the course they will save everybody’s bacon and earn the respect and gratitude of the specialist grunts the world over.

 

(18)        There will be a car chase. Generally it will be unevenly matched. Say Pitt® in a vintage Ford Model-T up against a Uzi blazing Yakuza hit team tearing up the tarmac in a pack of re-mapped Nissan Skylines, bent on world domination through poisoned noodles and sabotaged fortune cookies. (Cf. the unpublished Yakuza Death Noodles).

 

(19)        There will come a point when it looks like Pitt® has bitten the dust. The odds will be too great. The action will cut from Dirk just as he’s run out of the last lungful of oxygen ten thousand feet below the Atlantic or has thrown himself out of a plane at 30,000 feet to save the universe. Everyone bar Al Giordino and Admiral Sandecker will give up on him. They know better.

 

(20)      Against the seemingly impossible odds, despite the injuries they pick up along the way, heedless of sniper attacks from gangs of feminists, Pitt® and Giordino will come through triumphant and victorious. Sanity and normality will be restored. The world will keep on spinning.

 

So, next time you’re heading through the airport, grabbing the SPF 15 that you’ve forgotten and all those duty free designer labels are tempting your compulsive, avaricious streak, and you’re looking for something unchallenging to read in the sun then grab yourself a slice of Cussler from the bookshop. He won’t let you down. And neither will Dirk®. Biff, bang, pow.

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