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Book Review: White Plague

By (January 22, 2015) No Comment

White Plaguewhtie plague cover

by James Abel

Berkley Books, 2015

Contemporary men’s-adventure thriller-novels are well and justly known for their lumbering stupidity; in fact, thanks to the swaggering, punchy pea-brained nationalist xenophobia of its architects in their mirrored sunglasses and their U.S.S. Indianapolis snap-backs, the sub-genre rather tends to rejoice in that stupidity, writing to the worst impulses of the worst elements of the customer bases of busy airport bookstores. The male heroes of these novels will be hard, bristle-haired, recently divorced borderline-alcoholics with long histories of being pushed, very reluctantly, into bursts of apocalyptic physical violence. The rare female heroes of these novels will be exactly like the men only with an extra X-chromosome hastily tacked on. And the visible brand of the whole thing is usually the main character’s name hauled up over the entrance way: A Jack Ryan Novel, A Jack Reacher Novel, A Repairman Jack Novel.

So, if it aspires to any kind of blue state readership, White Plague, the first “Joe Rush” novel by Bob Reiss writing under the pen-name of James Abel, must first shrug off, somehow, a formidable weight of lowered expectations. And there are times when a skeptical reader might wonder if Abel is intentionally, winkingly inviting the most reductive kinds of misreadings. When our hero steps forward to introduce himself, he does so in a way almost calculated to make Le Carre readers wince:

My name is Joe Rush, and you won’t find a description of my real job in my dossier at the Marine Corps. It’s been sheep-dipped, altered so that what remains contains – like Washington itself – enough truth to fool a casual observer, and the rest a fabrication designed to protect the Corps, me, and the nation from learning thing that people like the director have decided you ought not to know.

But if they’re intrepid enough to soldier on, those readers will find themselves consistently and pleasantly surprised by White Plague. Abel gives us up front his neatly stripped-down plot: while on a highly classified mission in the Arctic Circle, the cutting-edge submarine USS Montana has been suddenly overtaken by the double catastrophe of a mystery disease and an uncontrolled fire on board. A special operative with hazardous medical training is therefore needed on the emergency transport the Marines scramble to reach the Montana before the Russians or the Chinese do, and that’s where Joe Rush comes in (“Just what kind of doctor are you anyway?” a character asks him at one point, in response to which he thinks but isn’t pompous enough to say, “The kind who treats worst-case scenarios”). Soon he’s leaving flying out to head the team that will make its way in radio silence to the stricken vessel, and Abel indulges himself in some descriptive passages obviously born of personal love of the north:

Alaska is so big that if you superimposed it over the continental United States, one end would cover North Carolina and the other would touch California. We’d roared over the Brooks Range, the peaks seeming to reach up and try to knock the plane from the sky. Dall sheep stared back from snowy crests. Then the mountains had dropped away and the land had become brown tundra, rolling grass-covered hummocks and thousand of elliptical freshwater lakes. Shaped like sunglass lenses, they threw back golden glare through rainbows of vapor; mist tendrils, fog, drizzle. The sense – gazing out – was of flying through gigantic lungs.

Abel can sometimes put nonsensical opinions in opinionated Joe Rush’s head, as when our hero observes about the captain of the rescue vessel, “He was a short man … Over the years I’ve learned that small men in positions of influence tend to be more efficient, contrary to the usual view. They’ve had to prove themselves, especially the top athletes, all their lives” – even though it’s a well-documented fact that short men in positions of power are invariably world-class psychotic martinets. But Abel counteracts such lapses with some very interesting socio-political musings about the international complications that might arise if global warming were to open up the arctic to easier travel and exploitation. “Saudi Arabia was wasteland two hundred years ago, and the countries who got control of that oil and those Mideast trade routes ruled the world,” Joe Rush points out to Captain Shrimpy the Jerkwad, “You ever read Rudyard Kipling, Captain? It’s the great game, jockeying for power in remote places.”

That Great Game inevitably intrudes on the tense expedients of Rush’s medical rescue mission, and Abel skillfully ratchets up the tension with a series of well-controlled revelations as his plot advances and his heroes get farther and farther from any possibility of help or backup. The book’s obligatory complicated-romance subplot is as Dead On Arrival as all such sub-plots have been going all the way back to Achilles and Patroclus, but the rest of White Plague is refreshingly intelligent and genuinely gripping. If this debut is any indication, “A Joe Rush Novel” might end up being an encouragement rather than a warning. Imagine that.