- The Washington Times - Friday, January 22, 2010

By Stephen Coonts
St. Martins, $26.99, 356 pages


There are action-adventure novels - Frederick Forsyths iconic “The Day of the Jackal” and Tom Clancy’s “The Hunt for Red October” come to mind - that create a successful alternative universe within real-world parameters, giving readers the chilling trompe lil sensation ‘Oh, this could actually happen.’ Stephen Coonts‘ latest novel, “The Disciple” is not one of them.

Mr. Coonts‘ ridiculous scenario entails a fanatical plan by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to launch hundreds of missiles, some of them nuclear tipped, at targets all across the Middle East. His goal is to trigger “Jihad Day,” a massive American and Israeli nuclear response that will turn Iran into a martyr nation and send millions of its unwitting citizens on a magic carpet ride to Paradise. Mr. Ahmadinejad will survive along with a nutsy coterie of fellow jihadists in a radiation-proof bunker deep below Tehran and emerge from the radioactive rubble as Islam’s new Mahdi.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s nefarious plan comes to naught of course, stymied by Mr. Coonts‘ franchise character, Jake Grafton, a former naval aviator who is now the graybeard head of CIA’s Middle East operations. Adm. Grafton and his henchman, a CIA operative named Tommy Carmellini, save the day.

The problems with Mr. Coonts‘ book are manifold. His characters are tissue-thin stereotypes. His senior Mossad officer wears “khaki trousers and a white short-sleeve shirt with buttons down the front and a pocket protector in the left breast pocket.” That’s so retro it’s like a scene from Otto Preminger’s adaptation of “Exodus.” Back at the White House, national security adviser Dr. Jurgen Schultz (“Trim, with a full head of dyed hair, thickened, some suspected with hair transplants”) sits next to the CIA director, William S. Wilkins, “a career intelligence bureaucrat and [he] looked it. He was balding and slightly overweight and wore trifocals, a suit from Sears and a cheap, out-of-date tie.” Sears? Sears?

Even John M. Deutch, the Krameresque DCI who often looked as if he wore pre-rumpled Jos. A. Bank suits, dressed better than that. In Mr. Coonts‘ alternative universe, breakfast at the White House is “served by the white house staff.” One wonders whatever happened to the battalion of stewards who work at the White House Mess (currently and politically correctly referred to as the “Presidential Food Service”).

In Mr. Coonts‘ alternative universe, presidential-level briefings are conducted by O-4s - that’s Army or Marine majors or Navy lieutenant commanders - instead of colonels or above, and top-level national security meetings are held sans the participation of the director of national intelligence or the secretaries of state and defense. In Mr. Coonts‘ alternative universe, there are no news leaks about policy differences and no intraservice infighting. Talk about suspension of disbelief.

On the bad-guy side, Iranian President Ahmadinejad (“a real piece of work” in Tommy Carmellini’s bon-mot turn-of-phrase) is having a passionate affair with his torturer-in-chief, a hottie war-named Hazra al-Rashid, who wears nada under her chador “and shaved her legs in the European style.” The climax of the Ahmadinejad-al-Rashid love scene actually made me guffaw.

Mr. Coonts reports to have done a lot of research for this novel. One wonders where. He names one of his characters, an IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) gunboat captain, Omar. Perhaps Mr. Coonts‘ research didn’t indicate that Omar (or Umar) is primarily a Sunni name. Hint: the vast majority of Iranians are Shia. He refers to Iran’s MOIS - the ministry of intelligence and security - as “the largest, most secretive instrument of political repression remaining on the planet.” Perhaps Mr. Coonts has not visited - or read about -China lately.

Mr Coonts also claims to have read “Know Thine Enemy,” a 1999 book about post-revolutionary Iran written by “Edward Shirley,” a pseudonym used by former CIA clandestine service officer Ruel Marc Gerecht. In that book, Mr. Shirley refers time after time to Iran’s Persian culture and identity. So far as I could see, Mr. Coonts uses the word Persian only once in 300-plus pages. His Iranians, like his Israelis and his Washingtonians are all cartoon figures. The writing is for the most part flaccid, lifeless and cliche intense, and in some instances the dialog is unintentionally hilarious.

” ‘Why are you here, Tommy Carmellini, on the far side of the earth, risking your life?’

“I looked her square in both those big brown eyes. ‘Damned if I know,’ I said. ‘A character defect is the most likely explanation.’

“She was silent for a bit, then changed the subject. ‘After Jihad Day, what will happen in Iran?’

” ‘I don’t know.’ I pulled my hand loose from hers. ‘Let’s hope there are some Iranians left to have a future. What it will be will be up to them.’

” ‘It will be as Allah wills it.’ ”

In Mr. Coonts‘ alternative universe, a howitzer “vomited another round” and “missiles vomited forth like fireworks.” This unique Coontsian imagery could well become trademarked as Mr. Coonts‘ proprietary projectile prose.

But enough carping. There is one redeeming element to Mr. Coonts‘ novel and that is his airborne scenes. Mr. Coonts is a former naval aviator whose first success was the 1986 the novel “Flight of the Intruder” and his passion for flight and for those who pilot warplanes is the one positive element of “The Disciple.”

As soon as the planes launch, the pace picks up. Unlike the rest of his characters, Mr. Coonts‘ pilots - especially a lead-from-the-front lieutenant commander named Harry Lampert and a wonderfully drawn wild Irish rose F/A-18 jockey, Lt. Betsy “Chicago” O’Hare, display engaging flesh-and-blood characteristics. The book’s only dramatic tension takes place during those cockpit sequences. But there are all too few of them and way too much Tommy Carmellini. Perhaps it’s time for Mr. Coonts to jettison the tiresome Tommy dreck and give Lt. Cmdr. Lampert and Lt. O’Hare their own flightline series. Now that could provide an alternative universe worth some serious reading time.

Washington writer John Weisman’s latest novels “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are available as Avon paperbacks.



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