We live in complicated and uncertain times. Gone are the Cold War days of fighting the monolithic Soviet Union. Now in the U.S. we ingest daily headlines about the "Axis of Evil," or about al-Qaeda, those pesky terrorists who seem to evade us at every turn. Osama bin Laden's recently surfaced audio tape reminded us that, despite our best efforts, the mastermind behind the September 11th attacks is still out there.
It's enough to make you wish for a good old-fashioned American action hero, the kind who, with the help of a few handy friends -- and access to the latest high-tech weaponry -- could muster the necessary cunning, diplomacy and brute force to resolve the situation. Burlington writer Jack DuBrul has created just the man for the job: geologist-explorer Philip Mercer, a fit six-footer with "masculine, squared features and bold gray eyes," and a jaw that's firm, "even in sleep."
Mercer returns to the page for the fifth time in DuBrul's new thriller, River of Ruin. But instead of battling sleeper cells, he spends 538 pages unraveling an elaborate Chinese plot to gain control of the Panama Canal. Reading River of Ruin is an indulgent pleasure, like turning off CNN to watch a James Bond-Jack Ryan movie marathon. There is nothing ambiguous about the book. The good guys are unwaveringly good, the bad guys very bad and the action engaging and relentless.
The story explodes like rapid fire from a machine gun, one dramatic conflict after another. It starts when Mercer buys the journal of a 19th-century explorer at an upscale Paris auction house. The journal recounts the French exploration of Panama and the history of the Canal, an area of interest to the multi-lingual geologist. Mysterious Chinese thugs who try to snatch the book from Mercer end up chasing him through the sewers of Paris. Intrigued by their interest in his purchase, he jets to Panama. He suspects the Chinese have targeted a friend who is digging for buried treasure near the River of Ruin. Once there, he meets a capable and attractive U.S. Army officer, Captain Lauren Vanik, and together they face the Chinese threat with a little help from an 80-year-old retired sea captain and a rogue unit of the French Foreign Legion. Their mission leads them underground, underwater, and through the jungles of Panama.
To DuBrul's credit, Mercer is a first-class action hero. He's comfortable with violence but not violent, confident but not arrogant, and has a seemingly endless supply of both money and generosity. He also has a painful past that makes him respectful to women and empathetic to orphans. And, as we learn early on, he's been tapped to become a "Special Science Advisor to the President." DuBrul's Chinese villains are almost as well-drawn, especially Liu Yousheng, the ambitious politician behind the risky Panamanian campaign.
Like a good thriller writer, DuBrul has obviously done his homework when it comes to tech talk. His precise, detailed descriptions ground the plot in the realm of plausibility. His small band of operatives employs all sorts of devices, including Jet BellRanger helicopters, a Caterpil-lar 988 front-end loader, and a high-tech VGAS (Vertical Gun for Advanced Ship) cannon. The VGAS is a 155mm weapon that, DuBrul writes, "can fire fifteen rounds a minute and can direct a stream of six inch explosive shells like a fire hose from about eighty miles away." Though DuBrul peppers his prose with acronyms and weapons shorthand, the lingo rarely becomes heavy-handed or burdensome.
But for all DuBrul's ability to incorporate research and expertly build suspense, his cliched, formulaic prose is utterly artless. Readers will cringe when he writes of Mercer, "He knew they were facing the longest odds he'd ever encountered, but true to his nature, he would go on no matter what." And Vanik's breasts never meet a fabric they don't strain against.
DuBrul is also embarrassingly sloppy when it comes to romance. The sexual tension between Mercer and Vanik goes from zero to 60 in approximately one paragraph. Before Vanik even speaks, Mercer notes that she has two different colored eyes, one gray like his, the other blue. "The asymmetry made her striking," DuBrul informs us, "even if he hadn't already found her so attractive." The would-be lovers coast from flirtation to flirtation as they dangle from helicopters and flee from armed soldiers on a Japanese auto freighter in a conveniently located Bentley. In one scene, Vanik marches behind Mercer through the sweltering Panamanian jungle, pondering his ass. "His was the cutest tush she'd ever seen," writes DuBrul, "making her blush and want to goose him at the same time."
DuBrul offers similarly shallow portraits of marginal characters like the Legionnaires, who never rise above their role as a plot device. And Harry White, the 80-year-old sea captain, is in great shape even though he constantly imbibes copious amounts of alcohol and smokes. He's also predictably salty, clever and endearing.
Still, if you can stand the sophomoric writing and the body count doesn't bother you, River of Ruin is an upbeat alternative to the nightly news. Like the latest James Bond flick or a good video game, it's mindless, stimulating and for entertainment purposes only.