Clive Cussler and the Titanic Bestseller

by John Heath

One popular author we never quite got around to in Why We Read What We Read is Clive Cussler. Neither of us had ever read anything from Cussler’s underwater adventure series, even though he has placed six books in the annual top fifteen in fiction since 1992 (Sahara, Flood Tide, Vahalla Rising, Trojan Odyssey, Black Wind, Treasure of Khan). I thought it only appropriate, then, on a recent vacation at the beach, to take along an ocean thriller and see what the fuss is all about.

First, the choice of which of the 19 Dirk Pitt (trademarked!) novels to read was an easy one. Since I teach classical literature by day, how could I pass up something called Trojan Odyssey (#15 in Fiction for 2003)? Little did I know that I wouldn’t be reading about the Greeks at all, but about Celts and Druids and Amazonian women dressed in lavender performing human sacrifices of kidnapped CEOs of multinational corporations. That last part was especially inspirational.

The plot (and I use the word loosely) is based on Iman Wilken’s loony Where Troy Once Stood, a book that apparently in all seriousness argues the Greek legend of the sack of Troy is based on a historical Celtic attack in England. The modern-day Celtic warrior women are, like every good action villain (including The Brain in the Warner Brothers’ cartoon), doing what they always do: trying to take over the world. Their diabolical plan? To dig four 50-foot wide tunnels under—that is, completely across—Nicaragua in order to divert the South Equatorial Current into the Atlantic Ocean, thus affecting the Gulf Stream and freezing Europe and North America. Indeed, this fiendish tunneling has already been carried out in such murderous secrecy that no one on the planet has noticed (or lived to tell the tale), this despite the billions of gallons of poisonous detritus from the drilling that has spewed a toxic “red crud” throughout the Caribbean. Even more amazing, no one seems to have observed the hundreds of lavender (!) ships, planes, trucks, and golf carts necessary for the project, all emblazoned with the company’s logo (a horse) and name (Odyssey). Where are those pesky spy satellites when you need them? What good is the Patriot Act if we can’t even tell when someone is boring giant holes through an entire country?

The evil-doers have also kidnapped all the important scientists in the world working on alternative fuels (anyone seen Professor Greenpeace in the past 6 months? Anyone? He said he was just going out to get a burger…). This professorial chain gang has been forced to invent a non-polluting energy source that is already being stockpiled by the Chinese (who are the Druids’ sugar-daddies in the project). World dominion is just hours away!

You get it. It’s all dumb fun, a sort of Octopussy meets Tom Swift and his Subocean Geotron. Indeed, these sorts of things should all skip the print medium entirely and go straight to made-for-TV movies starring Keanu Reeves. There’s nothing even vaguely literary, or particularly riveting, about the book. There are macho action sequences by the ton, of course, which include the requisite banter between the hero and his trusty sidekick. Even after barely surviving the attack of a bull shark, for example, they can joke (while still underwater!):

“That was about as close as we ever came to being a special on the dinner menu,” Giordino said, in a vague tone still tinged with tension.
“He would probably have digested me and spit you out for tasting bad,” Pitt came back.
“We’ll never know whether he enjoyed Italian food.” (358)

Okay, okay, I know I’m being a bit harsh here. Nobody is supposed to take any of this seriously. Not every plot can be as twisted and dramatic as The Da Vinci Code. And certainly not every adventure writer has to share an ironic wink with the audience (though I prefer them that way)—sometimes a stud is a stud. Dirk is an action hero, a man of limited depth but infinite talents who knows his women, wine, and animal proteins:

Skipping cocktails, Pitt went right to the wine, ordering a hearty Sparr Pinot Noir. He then ordered a game platter for the table as an appetizer consisting of deer, antelope, breast of pheasant, rabbit and quail with wild mushrooms and chestnuts.…Pitt ordered the kidneys and mushrooms in a sauce of sherry and mustard. Calves’ brain and exotic veal tongue were also on the menu, but the women weren’t up to it. Giordino and Micky shared the rack of lamb while Dirk and Summer tried the choucroute garni, a large platter of sauerkraut with sausages, pheasant, duck confit, squab and foie gras, which was a specialty of the house. (168-9)

On the way out of the restaurant, Dirk spots a wounded squirrel and eats it in one bite, adding that “I only wish someone had brought a nice raspberry coulis.”

No, the part about the dessert is completely made up. Still, I wonder if male fans of Cussler actually admire Dirk: do they want to be like him, or do they just sort of chuckle at the bloated prose as I did and go along for the ride? A website that claims to be the “number one Clive Cussler Fan website in the world” is called “Society of Cusslermen.” It looks quite earnest. (If the proud photo of Webmaster beside the two Cusslers is any evidence, Cusslermen are decidedly geeky.) I get the feeling there’s some serious wish-fulfillment going on here. As a reporter writes of Dirk in the novel: “There is a touch of Dirk Pitt in every man whose soul yearns for adventure. And because he is Dirk Pitt, he yearns more than most” (186). Yes, Dirk yearns. If there is a sentence that captures the tone and style of the book, that is it. These books appeal to the real man apparently lurking inside all of us males, the swashbuckler buried deep in the Pitt of even the most pasty-skinned CPA.

But what is most fascinating to me is the way Clive Cussler has written himself into his aging hero. In most of the Dirk Pitt novels, it turns out, some character shows up who either is, or stands for, the author. The fictional agency Dirk Pitt works for—the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA)—even bears the same name as Cussler’s real-life non-profit underwater archaeological organization. But Trojan Odyssey brings this Hitchcockian self-reflexivity to a new emotional level. Clive and Dirk are both getting old. Dirk has recently (in the previous book) learned that he has adult twins, Summer (named after the kind of reading she appears in, I think), and Dirk Jr., who takes his name from, well, Dirk Sr. But it turns out both Dirks take their names from Cussler’s son, Dirk. Clive is now in his mid-seventies and (at least in one interview I read) admitted in the early 2000s that his inspiration was flagging. It was time to bring in some new blood, and what better blood than his own! Trojan Odyssey is the last Dirk Pitt (trademarked—did I mention that?) novel to be written by Clive Cussler alone. His son, Dirk, has been the co-author of the last two Dirk Pitt books, and it may just be that Dirk will eventually take over the Dirk Pitt empire. In postmodern sympathy with his creator, the womanizing adventurer Dirk Pitt ends the novel by taking a desk job and getting married, apparently turning over the physical stuff to his son, Dirk Jr. (Yes, I know, there are way too many Dirks here; it’s a veritable Dirkadirkastan.) The character and author, sharing a love of antique automobiles, finally meet on the last page of the book (485), as a grey-haired man named Clive Cussler crashes Dirk’s wedding, asking to take a look at his car collection:

“Strange,” he [Pitt] said in a vague tone, “I get the feeling I’ve known you for a long time.”
“Perhaps in another dimension.”
Pitt put his arm around Cussler’s shoulders. “Come on in, Clive, before my guests drink up all the champagne.”
Together, they stepped into the hangar and closed the door.

It looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship: two successful men of the world slipping out to sip some wine and polish a fender as their sons step into their over-sized shoes. And in the next novel, Black Wind (2004), Dirk Jr. does in fact take over the central role in the action.

But I smell trouble in the passing of this bestselling torch. In the latest incarnation (Treasure of Khan, 2006), Dirk Sr. is back and more Dirkish than ever. If I were Dirk Jr., I’d watch my back. Could this reinvigoration spell a squeezing out of Dirk Cussler as well? Did Clive get a second wind, black or otherwise? Let me know, won’t you? I probably won’t be reading any more Dirk Pitt novels, but I’m yearning to know.

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