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Tucson Weekly Literary Lunkhead

Why is it that so many people read Clive Cussler books? And why can't I stop?

By Tom Danehy

JANUARY 12, 1998:  I READ ANOTHER Clive Cussler book. I did it even after I swore I would never do it again. I couldn't help myself; I was powerless to resist the urge. And you know what? I liked it.

I don't deserve to call myself a library-card holder. My donations to educational TV are a sham. All the non-fiction I read turns out to be filler.

Over the past year, I had sharpened my will power to an all-time high. Doritos are a thing of the past. I gave up soda pop for Lent. I now laugh in the face of chocolate-chip cookies, whereas six months ago, I would have laughed with a face full of chocolate-chip cookies. But then comes along another tale of Cussler's fictional (to say the very least) hero Dirk Pitt, who asks me to go vicariously along on another of his incredibly implausible adventures and I say, "Sure, but this'll be the last one. I swear."

Yeah, right.

Like most adults who read for pleasure and knowledge, I started out with a scattershot approach, reading whatever was hot at the time. The Godfather, The Naked Ape, The Exorcist--I rolled along with the literary tide for a few years after high school, just proud of myself for being a reader at all.

In my 20s I gobbled up Irving Wallaces's melodramas and Robert Ludlum's overwrought spy books, then moved on to Tony Hillerman's Navajo mystery novels. Along the way I picked up an affection for Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, and (may God have mercy on my soul) the king of techno-weenies, Tom Clancy.

But a statement made by, of all people, former USC and Tampa Bay Buccaneers football coach John McKay helped me find my way. In an interview he said that he didn't have time for fiction any more, and besides, no fiction could be as compelling as that which really happened to real people.

I took him up on it and soon I was hooked. Six-hundred-page biographies, entire books about the battle of Chancellorsville, and sweeping histories of space flight.

I made the switch and climbed several rungs up the intellectual ladder. But I didn't kick fiction entirely. I'd still read the quickie novel on a plane flight or while waiting for my daughter to get out of folklorico practice. But I convinced myself that I was being more selective.

I read The Firm and then never read another Grisham book. I haven't read any of Ludlum's latest releases, which apparently are '90s sequels to '80s sequels to his '70s blockbusters. (His latest, The Matarese Countdown, is yet another sequel, this one to my favorite of his books, The Matarese Circle.)

Still, I couldn't shake this Cussler guy. The Paradise Valley-based author's books are stilted and clichéd, his hero ridiculously lucky, and his plotting absurdly sensational. All Dirk Pitt did in the first book I read was raise the Titanic, only to find that the treasure he was looking for had been buried in an English graveyard.

Pitt is impossibly handsome, the rich son of a California senator, and apparently adept at all things physical and mental. He lives in a converted airplane hangar, and gets help on his missions for the National Underwater & Marine Agency from friends like the 300-pound shipwreck expert named St. Julien Perlmutter.

I'm embarrassed by what I just wrote, but I take some small solace in the fact that more than 70 million Dirk Pitt novels have been sold, so I'm not alone. At this writing, the latest one, Flood Tide, sits atop The New York Times bestseller list.

Heck, one time ol' Dirk dodged death by replaying the plot from The Flight of the Phoenix, found the perfectly-preserved body of Abraham Lincoln in the Sahara Desert (he had been snatched by a desperate Confederacy and a look-alike had been killed by Booth), solved an Amelia Earhart-like mystery, then saved the entire world from a deadly red tide. And this was all in one book (Sahara).

Another time, Dirk found the lost treasure of the Incas right here in the Sonora Desert (Inca Gold). Then, in Shock Wave, he foiled a plot to destroy Hawaii with shock waves generated by diabolical Australian diamond miners. In Dragon, he fought a nuclear-tinged war with evil Japanese industrialists (beating Clancy to the punch by a couple years).

I'm not making this up. And I wonder how (and why) Cussler does.

In all of the books, it's painfully obvious that Cussler fancies Dirk Pitt to be his alter-ego. Yet he doesn't stop there. He also puts himself in every book, Alfred Hitchcock-style, as a prospector wandering through the desert, a disgruntled Alaskan mine employee, or a Louisiana bayou fisherman. The inevitable appearance by a character named Cussler makes the reader cringe, but then you get over it and plunge on.

In Flood Tide, Dirk is on vacation in Washington state. He goes for a scuba dive in Orion Lake, only to find its bottom littered with the bodies of hundreds of illegal Chinese immigrants. He destroys the smuggling operation and sets out after the kingpin, the evil Hong Kong businessman Qin Shang, who has a devilish plot to destroy the American economy and, in the process, become richer than God and Bill Gates.

Shang plans to...no, I can't tell you. You wouldn't believe me. Worst of all, it has an odd ring of possibility to it.

Do I recommend the book? Only to people who've already read other Dirk Pitt adventures. Of course, they've probably bought it by now, anyway. The rest of you have been warned.


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