Saturday, December 10, 2011

Author review on Clive Cussler

Speaking of engaging characters, I thought it might be time for another author review.  Let me start off by telling you about the winter semester of my second year of university.  Those were some crazy 12 weeks….  I was working (almost) full time retail, I had finally started to specialize in my classes so I actually gave a shit about my grades, and I was organizing a year end gala for the school’s History students (I worked on student government).  Of all the stressors I’ve experienced in my life, that gala damn near killed me.  In essence, it was an event very much like a wedding reception for 150 people that I had about 3 month to execute while working with a negative budget (ticket sales were going to pay for the event, but AFTER the fact).  The consequences for me were very little sleep, very little sanity, and a 4-month long eye twitch.  Needless to say, come the end of that semester, I was burnt out.

Luckily, I was living at home at the time.  I immediately responded to the end of the semester by quitting everything – job, society, and common sense.  I found myself a 10-hour a week, low expectation, cash-under-the-table job, and that was all I did all summer long that required a bra.  The rest of my time I spent in my jammies at home reading.  Was it a mature response to stress?  No.  Was it the best summer of my life before and since?  Goddamn right it was.  My reading that summer took on 3 patterns – books that became movies, the House of Niccolo series (which I never did get to finish, it was so long), and Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels.  And honestly, it was the latter that saved my sanity and is the topic of this author review.

My dad had been reading Cussler books since I was a kid.  I think he mainly stuck to the Dirk Pitt series, because when I stumbled on them he already had the full run, and there weren’t many books from Cussler’s other series kicking around the house.  The reason they popped onto my radar was because that was the summer that Sahara, starring Matthew McConaughey, was released.  My dad knew I was reading book that had been turned into movies and suggested Sahara, and he also thought I would get behind the historical spin on the series.  He was right.  What followed was totally emersion into the Dirk Pitt series of books – I went through them back to back to back like they were literary crack-cocaine.

Anyone whose read them might be a little surprised that I had the stomach to do so.  None of them are particularly well written – the plot inevitably follows the same pattern: historical event occurs and sets up the impetuous for the modern-day story, a billionaire (insert exotic local here) businessman/company/evil genius seeks to exploit both the results of that historical event and (insert liminal segment of society here), Pitt and his crew work to save both the historical artifacts and (insert that liminal segment of society here).  And a lot of it happens under water.  Not only are the plots repetitive, but they usually have holes you can drive Mac trucks through – notable ones I remember from 6 years ago include raising the Titanic without it falling apart at the seams (which is what would literally happen, no matter what James Cameron is telling you), a huge oil deposit under Quebec, and the true story behind Abraham Lincoln’s death (which I can’t tell you about without ruining the plot of Sahara – the book, they left that silliness out of the movie).

So why, why, would I read these books (and there are a lot of them).  The characters.  The characters are engaging as fuck.  Dirk Pitt has that boyish charm all rogues seem to have, but he’s incredibly smart and fit and loves history.  There is almost nothing a girl couldn’t forgive him for.  His best friend and sidekick on his adventures is Al Giordino, a guy whose physical description is more brick shithouse than man, but who’s always got Pitt’s back, and who has a wicked sense of humour.  Rudi Gunn, the lovable support character who always has the answer to the technical/logistics problems.  Loren Smith, Pitt’s on-again/off-again girlfriend, who you can’t help but like for her ball-busting personality.  And, of course, the Admiral (James Sandecker), director of NUMA and Pitt and Giordino’s boss; with his cigar and van dyke beard, he’s a compendium of lovable character traits (and was played to near perfection by William Macey in the film).  Authors can get me to shell out for their works if there is ONE strong character involved – Cussler wrote a handful!  Of course I loved these books.

There is, however, one character that I can’t get behind.  When I first came across him, I literally put the book down, sought out my father, and demanded an explanation.  I took a whole day’s break from the book after finding the character, because I wasn’t sure I was willing to embrace that silliness.  What, you ask got me so riled up?  The appearance of the unnamed man, in a Hawaiian shirt, who loved old cars.  Check out the picture above.  That’s right, Cussler wrote himself into the book as a character.  And not just a passing character – without him, Pitt and Giordino wouldn’t have solved the mystery.  And it wasn’t just one book – no matter where the boys are in the world, there’s this mysterious and unnamed character giving them a hand.  Now, I’m all for some meta (obviously), but this was too far.  Even all these year’s later, I’m still not reconciled that that plot device.

Sadly, after having loved the fuck out of these books in the summer after Second Year, I found I could never get back to them.  I’ve tried reading the latest books in the series, but usually peater-out after a hundred pages or so.  The characters are just as lovable, but the repetitive plots kill me.  I think what made these books so important to me was the time of my life in which I found them.  I was coming off a monster of a semester and needed something to help my mind recover.  Cussler landed in the perfect storm that was my life, and for that, I’ll always look back fondly at these books.  Will I re-read them?  I might try, but I have a feeling they’re never going to live up to the place I’ve put them in my mind.  That makes me sad, because I do loves those characters oh so very much.  I will say that I wish they would do more Dirk Pitt movies – Sahara got panned, but I found it to be a great ad-com.  More flicks might be the only way I get to re-live these characters without all the messy business of the long-winded and troublesome plots found in the books.

Final verdict?  Read a couple of Cusslers – see if you like them, because if you can get into them, they’re fantastic reads.  (But skip Pacific Vortex until you do love the characters – it’s a truly horribly written book.)

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