Tom Clancy rocks.
There, I just had to get that off my chest. And now you know my secret --- that even though I could be called a snob when it comes to fiction, I have a soft spot for fast-paced global political thrillers in which Americans are always the good guys. It's my own form of escapism.
That's why when I read that Joel C. Rosenberg's latest book was "Clancyesque" it was a good omen in my eyes. Indeed, THE LAST DAYS, the bestselling sequel to the bestselling THE LAST JIHAD, is a breathless geopolitical roller coaster ride. It follows on the heels of THE LAST JIHAD's war on terrorism plotline to focus on the potential for peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors.
The cast of characters is familiar to readers of THE LAST JIHAD and Jon Bennett, Wall Street strategist come senior White House advisor, takes the lead as the architect of a plan for peace between Israel and Palestine. Its basis? Vast oil reserves found in the region stand to make every Palestinian and Israeli man, woman and child wealthy beyond their dreams if they can just learn to work together.
Assassinations and attempted assassinations ensue. A Palestinian civil war breaks out and several shadowy groups with their own interests do their best to wreak havoc with attacks on sensitive locals such as the Dome of the Rock and Washington D.C. Admittedly, for reasons I'll talk about in a moment, I wanted to put this book down. But I couldn't. I was hooked and had to know what would happen next. Perhaps my biggest endorsement of the book would be the fact that I stayed up until 3AM to finish it.
One of the ways Rosenberg creates the narrative vortex that sucks you in is by warping the timeline and populating his story with real people in imaginary places. As the story opens the war in Iraq has just ended. Saddam Hussein is dead. His sons are dead. And the year is 2010. Huh? Didn't most of this just happen a few months ago? You don't even realize that it's 2010 until later on in the story. By then you're also scratching your head at the appearances of Abu Mazen as prime minister of Palestine. In the real world Mazen relinquished the role several months ago in 2003. And while the president in 2010 is the imagined James MacPherson, references to the real President George W. Bush, officials in his current administration and their policies also add to a sense of reality that is slightly askew. I'll warn you: for a few days after reading THE LAST DAYS the stuff of the nightly news will seem so seven years ago.
The reason I wanted to put the book down stems from what I perceived as Rosenberg's conservative political agenda. As a sometimes-conservative evangelical Christian with Jewish roots, I share a lot of the affections of the author. I like democracy. I like Israel. At the same time, I'm generally critical of those who use fiction to make a point that could be made more honestly in a nonfiction arena.
The tip-off to me that this might be the case with THE LAST DAYS is its cellophane-thin characters, the most offending of whom is Jon Bennett's bodyguard and romantic foil Erin McCoy, an "Uzi-toting, Arabic-speaking CIA supermodel." Please. The characters are at their strongest when they're engaged in action --- running through rat-infested sewers or trying to escape the Rock of Gibraltar --- which, thankfully, is the bulk of the book.
Dialogue is a weakness. When the characters start talking about the issues or where extended attention is given to their inner thoughts, everyone is the straw man for Rosenberg's ideas and perspective. In contrast Tom Clancy, conservative though he may be, has a habit of creating rich characters with minds of their own. Neither author writes what I would consider life-changing fiction, but Clancy is the more honest storyteller. Having said this, I think Rosenberg is consciously trying to represent perspectives other than his own --- this is admirable --- and shares with Clancy the ability to keep the reader engaged.
THE LAST DAYS benefits greatly from the author's intimate knowledge of the Middle East and his understanding of the competing interests in the region and the Washington D.C. political machine. His vision of the potential for peace in the near future in the Holy Land is intriguing. And while I think that the thin substance of the story is better suited for a two-hour movie (one I would go see), the larger time investment required to read this book won't detour many from burning the midnight oil to see what happens next.
Reviewed by Lisa Ann Cockrel on February 1, 2005