Category Archives: Obituaries

R.I.P. Tom Clancy

What to say about the passing of Tom Clancy?

Well, first, he was no Elmore Leonard, whose passing a few weeks ago was a huge loss. Leonard was a great stylist, a keen observer, and a master plotter. His stories were lean and mean until the end, and he had a knack for throwing unexpected events into his novels that you never saw coming, but made perfect sense when you looked at it in context of the story.

(I’m saying this now because I was in the throes of blogging apathy when Leonard died, and never gave him a proper sendoff in this forum.)

One of Clancy's two best novels, IMHO.  The other is Executive Orders.

One of Clancy’s two best novels, IMHO. The other is Executive Orders.

Clancy’s work probably outsold Leonard’s, but then he practically invented the genre of the technothriller. And if he didn’t, one of my Facebook friends commented earlier, then he certainly made it a popular genre and refined it to the n-th degree.

Unlike Leonard, Clancy got a little lazy in his later years. His success enabled him to purchase part ownership of the Baltimore Orioles, and I’m sure that took up much of his time. At one point he went seven years between releasing a novel, and when he did, astute readers noticed that it had been written as a collaboration with another author. All of the novels he has released since then have been in collaboration with one of three other writers. One of those, a title called Search and Destroy, was cancelled by Clancy’s publisher prior to release. I always meant to put on what’s left of my Journalist’s Hat and try to find out why, but never did.

(I picked up on this before the book’s release, and my original post about it, along with the ensuing series on Ghostwriting it inspired, has proven to be one of the top draws to this site.)

Chock the ghostwriters up to “old author’s syndrome”, wherein an aging author reaches the point that ideas are more plentiful than the time to write them, and so they get farmed out to a competent lesser-known writer who can match the spirit and style. This isn’t a new thing – Arthur C. Clarke, Anne McCafferey, and Clive Cussler count among those who have done this, and if you look carefully at the new releases, you’ll see others – even younger successful authors – doing this now.

Like all popular authors, Clancy also succumbed to King’s Bloat – a publisher-inflicted disorder in which editors are too busy and/or scared to edit the work of an author who has become an 800 pound gorilla, and subsequent manuscripts suffer in quality as a result. I loved Executive Orders, but it could have lost some wordage and been even better. The last Clancy novel I tried to read was The Bear and the Dragon, and I felt it was such a mess that I never finished reading it (I can’t say if Clancy’s three ghostwriting collaborators put him into a Word Watchers program to take off some of that weight – I might have to pick up one of the newer ones to see). For me, the best of the pre-bloat Clancy came in The Cardinal of the Kremlin, in which Clancy proved that he could shuck aside a lot of the tech stuff and write what was basically a darn good spy novel.

So the industry that was Tom Clancy has left us, and there’s nobody that I can see on the horizon that could take his place. Perhaps that’s a good thing. And no, I’m not even going to try. I’m still struggling to become the first Joe Clifford Faust.

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R.I.P. Harvey Pekar

I just found out that Harvey Pekar passed away this morning as a result of his long battle with cancer.

I’m still not a huge fan of his – I haven’t read enough of his stuff. But I kind of admired him because he slugged it out in his day job as a file clerk – the same job that a high school aptitude test tried to shoehorn me into as I continued my slippage through the cracks of our education system.

I also know how influential Pekar was and I love the film American Splendor, with all of its ins and outs of Pekar’s life and the creative process. So here’s a promise to look up some more of his work, along with a clip of my favorite moment from American Splendor.

And here’s the text, because I know I’ll want it for later:

My name is Harvey Pekar – that’s an unusual name – Harvey Pekar.

1960 was the year I got my first apartment and my first phone book. Now imagine my surprise when I looked up my name and saw that in addition to me, another Harvey Pekar was listed. Now I was listed as “Harvey L. Pekar”, my middle name is Lawrence, and he was listed as “Harvey Pekar” therefore his was a – was a pure listing.

Then in the ’70s, I noticed that a third Harvey Pekar was listed in the phone book, now this filled me with curiousity. How can there be three people with such an unusual name in the world, let alone in one city?

Then one day, a person I work with, expressed her sympathy with me, concerning what she thought, was the death of my father, and she pointed out an obituary notice in the newspaper for a man named Harvey Pekar. And one of his sons was named Harvey. And these were the other Harvey Pekar’s. And six months later, Harvey Pekar Jr. died. And although I’ve met neither man, I was filled with sadness, ‘what were they like?’, I thought, it seemed that our lives had been linked in some indefineable way.

But the story does not end there, for two years later, another ‘Harvey Pekar’ appeared in the phone book. Who are these people? Where do they come from? What do they do? What’s in a name?

Who is “Harvey Pekar”?

Michael Crichton, 1942 – 2008

In 1969, this kid who wanted to be a writer walked into his local library and was browsing in the adult section when he happened upon a book on the New shelf. The cover intrigued him. He picked it up, read the inside flap, read the opening sentence – and was hooked. He checked the novel out, took it home, plopped down, and read it.

Well, not only did he like the book. It also changed the way he looked at writing. He loved the way the writer added to the atmosphere of the book by including an appendix and a list of references to an assortment of documents and scientific papers. And the story, about science gone wrong and a handful of people in a desperate struggle to find a solution, he found riveting.

And when he finished it, he closed the book and said, “Wow. THAT is the kind of book that I want to write!” Then he picked it back up and started to read it again.

By now you’ve no doubt guessed that the kid was me, the library was in Gillette, Wyoming, and the book was Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain – and that intriguing 1969 cover is what you see over there on the right.

Those two reads wouldn’t be the last time I read the book. I eventually bought a copy when it came out in paperback and continued to revisit it as the years went by. It was a book that influenced me as a writer more than any other novel I read, and it’s an influence that stayed with me.1 It was so influential to me that when my first novel was published, I described A Death of Honor as “Casablanca meets The Andromeda Strain.” And I always hoped that someday I might cross paths with Dr. C so I could shake his hand and thank him for what he did for me.

Unfortunately, I never got the chance. My career as a novelist ran aground, and now Michael Crichton has passed away at age 66, after a private battle with cancer. He will no doubt be eulogized by better sources than me, so I’m not going to try. I just wanted to put these words out there in belated thanks to someone whose work appeared to a boy with a narrow view of a genre and then expanded it in a way he hadn’t imagined – and was the standard he was chasing with every word he wrote.

  1. 1. Kurt Vonnegut was also an influence for a time – I loved the way all of his novels seemed to be interconnected as part of some grand mega-story. I ended up outgrowing him early in college (I hit my Vonnegut period early, during high school). A good thing, because it wasn’t long after that that he devolved into sad self-parody, allowing his writing schticks to take the place of his imagination.

Robert Palmer, R.I.P

Robert Palmer, ’80’s music icon and snappy dresser, has died at the age of 54.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t mention this – I tolerated his work but was never really a fan – except I know of someone who is going to be very upset: K, of And/News. The first time Richard sees her, she’s pumping coins into a juke box in a West Texas bar and dancing to Robert Palmer songs (I never even owned one of his records or CD’s until I started writing this book – I picked up a compilation of his hits to provide some atmosphere while I wrote).

I’ll definitely have to put some kind of reference to this in the book now, but I’ll have to decide where it will go. Maybe at the beginning I could have her say something to the effect that she went for a year or two without listening to him after he died. Or stick in a line somewhere like, “I don’t get all crazy like that when people die. Like I was sad when Robert Palmer died, but I didn’t get all suicidal.”

What’s interesting to me about K’s choice of music is the fact that she chose Robert Palmer, not me. Were it up to me, I would have given her a jones for a more obscure act that I felt deserved the attention, like Brian Protheroe, Spoons, or the Weimarband. But when I wrote that opening chapter of And/News, Richard walks into the bar to see her at the juke box, and she was dancing to… Surprise! The words I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On came out of my fingers.

Considering what happened to them next, it was a perfect choice.

I should have finished the book faster. I’d like to think that Palmer would have been chuffed to learn that he was K’s favorite artist.

NP – WHLO, The Bill Hall Show

The Man in Black is Gone

“Ah fell in to a burnin’ ring of far —
Ah went down down down and the flames went har…”

This is how we used to make fun of Johnny Cash when I was a snot-nosed junior-high kid. It was how most people we knew made fun of Johnny Cash. But it should also be noted that we knew the words to his songs and listened to his albums whenever we got the chance.

There was no avoiding the Man in Black when I was a kid. I grew up for the most part in a small Wyoming town that wouldn’t get an FM station until 1978. Naturally, to placate the population of ranchers who made up the bulk of the town’s population at the time, the station’s two staples were Paul Harvey’s News and Comment and country music.

If my folks had had their way, I never would have been introduced to Cash. They were into Big Band and the easy listening sounds of Dean Martin and Perry Como. I still have a thing for Harry James.

But when I went over to my friend’s house to meet with the gang, we pulled out his parents’ Johnny Cash albums and listened to them. Live at Folsom Prison and Live at San Quentin were special favorites of ours. I can’t explain why. I guess Cash sang about dark things that we could only imagine at that age (although we all understood A Boy Named Sue), and to be singing about them in front of an audience of hardened criminals…

Well, that was just about the coolest thing ever.

Yes, we made fun of his diction, or lack of it. We made fun of his three-note baritone singing range. We made fun of the simplicity of his songs. But we always went back for more…

I wasn’t a real hellion or rebellious sort as a kid. I was born too late to rebel with Elvis or the Beatles or Stones; I was too late for psychadelia, which I have developed a strange latter-day affection for. I was born too early for the Clash to be an influence on me, although I love that band. I was too early for New Wave and Punk to be anything other than something I enjoyed listening to.

So if there was any one artist who was the voice of my adolescent rebellion, it was Johnny Cash.

Oddly, even though he had long dropped from the airwaves, even though Garth Brooks turned country music into pop, and even though Cash recently became cool again by singing with U2 and covering a Nine Inch Nails song and truly making it his own – I never owned one of his albums.

Maybe it’s better that way. If I listened to him all the time it might dull the effect that hearing Cash has on me now.

Just a few bars of that boom-chicka-boom guitar and those first few guttural notes turns back the clock faster than you can imagine.

It’s a hot, dry, dusty summer morning in Gillette, Wyoming. I’m riding my almost-too-big bicycle down a red scoria road, through the trailer park, down to my friend’s house. Everyone’s parents are at work and we’ve got a day full of important things to do. But to start things out, he’s going to carefully sneak out an LP record from its sleeve and we’re going to listen to I Walk The Line