by David Beilstein
LITERARY figures come and go.
One figure, specifically, has caught my attention of late. He is British born, transplanted into America author, Lee Child, and his delightful Jack Reacher character—a former military investigator, stealth-like in timing and comedic turn—a knight-errant and hard-boiled fisticuffs scrapper.
Having read several Jack Reacher books—“The Killing Floor”, “One Shot”, “The Hard way”, “61 Hours”, “Bad Luck and Trouble”, “Worth Dying For”, “Tripwire”—and most recently “Nothing To Lose”—I say with confidence (a whipping thrill-up-the leg of jovial abandon), Mr Child’s impact with the Reacher books’ is based upon a whole-lot-of high-brow ingredients.
Chief amongst those ingredients is the man with no name refracted through a Knight-errant mythologically rich literary milieu. Worse steals have been made.
And worse fictional simulacrum occurs in popular bestselling authors. An unattractive reality to be sure, but unintentional nonetheless—void of personality and lacking intelligence. Like something approximating gravitational laws.
Thankfully, the Reacher books share none of these banal subtractions. Strident voice, terse prose, and an up-to-date “ice-berg” approach enable the Reacher books an imaginative reach beyond the average run of the mill bestselling fiction.
There has been blind spots. In Mr Child’s “Nothing To lose” novel, I came across the first low-grade effort of proletarian disappointment, resulting in an ersatz political thriller and an implausible villain of leftist fantasy. Given my confessional Presbyterian convictions, I have laid truckloads of criticism at the door of Dispensionalist, rapture-orientated evangelicalism—since it is unbiblical and unsound,hermeneutically—but as homemade terrorist-in-conspiracy exploitation, the premise of “Nothing To Lose” stretches believability too far.
Nobody needs Jack Reacher to leave fundamentalist Bible thumpers alone to legitimize his literary purposes, but fiction does need to imitate the real world in some manner. The idea a evangelical rapture televangelist-esque clone is the threatening villain at the center of “Nothing To Lose” was beneath Mr Child’s efforts. I can buy such a character embracing pleasures and excitement with a woman not his wife; I can even see such a character wafting of used car salesmen sheen, embezzling funds from bamboozled do-gooders. But a menacing terrorist at the center of a terrorist conspiracy, such a character is not. It’s laughable. “Nothing To Lose” takes place in an arid landscape between two towns: Hope and Despair. A working class environ, where in Despair everyone is dour and uptight. In Charles Murray’s latest book, it should be noted, it is actually working class folks whom are far more likely to be irreligious. Yet, in “Nothing To Lose” an evangelical Bible thumper has a cabal of working glass men and women dipped in the incantations of rapture panegyrics. Certainly, Timothy McVeigh fits the part of a working class homemade terrorist, but a rapture orientated evangelical, McVeigh was not.
Indeed, the late Mr McVeigh was an agnostic at best, atheistic more probably. Sometimes, one misses. “Nothing To Lose” was Mr Child’s miss.
I suppose one could simply say populist evangelicalism rooted (and dictated) by the passing earthly kingdom is an easy target. Still, what makes great fiction great—and Mr Child’ writes great fiction—is its abandonment of easy target acquisition.
Perusing reader comments on amazon.com for “Nothing To Lose”, I would safely say the Reacher novels have quite a few conservative fans, illustrated by how many readers were pissed off by “Nothing To Lose” seeming anti-Iraq War thrust—since Jack Reacher argues, subtly, that the last good war America fought was World War II. Everything else, Reacher intimates—Vietnam, Korea, Iraq—has been a molder of foreign policy gymnastics.
Such conservative umbrage, assumes, of course, that progressive Wilsonian ideas about foreign policy, encompassing the purposes of the sovereign state in terms of military expression—are themselves, conservative. President Woodrow Wilson was anathema to classical liberal ideas concerning war and peace. Likewise, President Wilson warred against Constitutional parameters—hailing individual autonomy as purely illusionary —an obvious backwards leap and attenuation to a liberal society.
As such, the premise anti-war convictions held by Jack Reacher are simply authorial leftist bootleg, are surface level argumentation at best. Such an anti-war premise is easy to claim, but harder to defend ideologically from a conservative point of view. All freethinking conservatives, i.e., classical liberals, however, should challenge that premise.
What seems to grip conservatives in the Jack Reacher novels is probably the imperfect nature of men and women depicted, and Reacher’s own question of authority. Reacher is a knight-errant wonderer; one ringing of pure individualism, something conservatives tend to venerate.
“Nothing To Lose”, therefore, investigates some of the natural consequences of such a character. And so, Reacher’s ideas about war are far more realistic to tenets held by men and women who have known war, than not.
Typically, this is a universal conviction of experience with violence. It is the skilled fighter, not the spurious hot-air amateur, who is most often the first person in a bar to avoid, or talk, him self out of a fight. For the skilled practitian of violence knows she [violence] is a promiscuous companion—much like fire and water.
In actuality, it is consistent conservatives whose nerves went to jelly when American foreign policy dictated more and more involvement in other nation’s affairs. In the media, popularly, the left got the credit as the anti-war crowd, thus convincing far too many uninformed conservatives, anti-war convictions arose only out of the caldron of the American left, not the American right.
This despite such well reasoned anti-Iraq War arguments made by Pat Buchanan and William F Buckley, Jr. Neither man—was in the case of the late Buckley, Jr.,—a progressive leftist.
In literary environs, Reacher’s maturation into fictional existence could not have come at a more apt time—in America and elsewhere around the Western universe. Jack Reacher, mercurial figure that he is, happens to be an isolated man of an isolated age—latitudinally related to the perils facing the formerly great nation of America. She is heavy with child of late—nobody knows the father— and who knows how worse it will get. It could be admitted America is on a road of to serfdom, philosophically, economically, and culturally; therefore, it would make sense such cultural context was the soil in which Jack Reacher germinated.
Jack Reacher matters for all the right reasons. Holding to America’s highways and byways by foot, sated by the pragmatics of the cloverleaf hitch-hike, Reacher is a former U.S. Army MP investigator slogging into new territory every book—slipping, jabbing, breaking and investigating—a rugged individual with his own code of ethics, handing out death and judgment from above with vicious entheos.
There is much Hemingway in Mr Child’s prose. Terse. Exacting. And sparse. White space, dialogue-drive narrative abounds. Like good dessert, turning the page is addictive. One has to keep reading.
With the Reacher books, a two-way street construction is erected: one where the writer builds the architectural edifice; the furnishings, the world, while the reader—and their imagination—occupy the newly adopted space. Rob Bass once had a hit Hip-Hop ditty called, “It Takes Two [To make a Thing Go Right]” and Mr Child’s Reacher books accomplish that marriage wonderfully.
British author, creator of Middle-earth, the late J.R.R Tolkien was famous for saying it is not the writers job to dominate the reader, but to unleash the reader’s imagination. Give and take. In Jazz parlance, it is called trading twelve’s.
So it is with the Jack Reacher series.
Mr Child’s is on record as disparaging genre. In his world, he sees two types of books: ones that keep one’s nose pressed in a book, enabling a novel reader to miss a subway stop, and ones that do not. And it would appear Mr Child’s opinion here is shared, more or less, with people like American writer Stephen King.
Or crime writing genius Elmore Leonard. There is more “Dutch” Leonard too, in Mr Child’s writing than horror/fantasy maestro King, but either way the results are equally addictive and engaging.
And that’s the point.
Turning the page, like gut-wrenching laughter for a stand-up comic, is the ball game. It’s the measure of success. The measuring rod as it were; the trophy wife, the Bentley sedan—the posh Park Avenue townhouse, for the Wall Street master-of-the-universe.
Many people lament how easy this sounds to unpack. But it’s damn hard work and requires prestigious literary skills. Storytelling skill-sets are of the genes, not the will.
Gifts, not purchases.
Mr Child’s process can be documented, simply. No outlining, no planning. When he begins, he is meeting the life of the characters (and the story) as people occasion upon life. They don’t know. People don’t know what happens next; it is unknown to them what happens in twenty minutes, in a week, in forthcoming months.
Could be anything. The good, the bad, or the ugly.
Next up, is a question—in the macro of the overall book, and the micro within chapters. Sounds easy, but execution is altogether a different thing. Unless researching, reading should be fun. It should be interesting. This is another successful pull-off of Lee Child’s craft. The Reacher books, all things considered, are fun reads. More than fun, there is something majestic going on with the sights and sounds of America without the sodden tourist bulletin-prose.
Virtuoso jazz critic Whitney Balliett once wrote,
“All first-rate literary criticism first defines what we are confronting.”
I suggest, besides being an imitation of the human experience within a dramatic framework—shaped and welded by narrative—literature must confront our penultimate circumstances. It must confront the cultural context of the character’s time and place, revealing something true and concrete.
Whilst the starring role belongs to Reacher, quite deservedly so, the second tier position is the American landscape. This was Mr Child’s best premise. Reacher would not be confined to rural pilgrim status, or locked into a cultural metropolis (New York, Los Angeles), but would traverse the American frontier wide and far. The other large conceit of the series, Reacher has no ties. None. And personal details of Jack Reacher are conserved, sprinkled lightly over all the books. Suffice to say, readers learn about Reacher sporadically, fostering the foundations for an engaging courtship between character and reader.
I have not been as excited about a series of books since discovering Elmore Leonard back in the late 90s. Lee Child, therefore, is a comforting new thing. And I’m blasting through these books too.
You could do worse, in popular fiction.