Thursday, July 28, 2016

Stand Your Ground

Stand Your Ground, by William W. Johnstone with J.A. Johnstone
August, 2014  Pinnacle Books

I happened to be in a Wal-Mart one Saturday afternoon in September, 2014 and for the heck of it I checked out the book section, just to see what garbage passed for bestselling fiction in today’s miserable, vapid world. Unsurprisingly, the majority of it was crap – paranormal romances, tweener-focused apocalyptic fantasy, and thick paperbacks with photoshopped covers about female FBI agents. But then I saw another paperback, this one just as fat as the others and with the same sort of generic cover apparently mandatory today, but this one had “William W. Johnstone” in embossed font.

“But he’s been dead for ten years!” I think I said out loud. However it turns out that William Johnstone is like the Tupac Shakur of fiction, a very prolific author despite being long dead. The book, Stand Your Ground, was co-credited “J.A. Johnstone,” which according to the back cover was none other than Johnstone’s nephew, continuing the tradition of his uncle – and curiously, the back cover bio never outright states that William Johnstone is no longer living. But the William/J.A. writing combo turns out to be quite prolific; I couldn’t believe how many books have been published by the two over the years.

So, as you all have likely figured out, William W. Johnstone has followed in the path laid out by Don Pendleton, with a host of ghostwriters turning out novels under his name. Pinnacle Books closely guards the secret of who has served as J.A. Johnstone, but the imprint has at least maintained the right wing sentiments so inherent in the work of the real William Johnstone. I found this interesting, as Pinnacle has been owned by Kensington since the late ‘80s, and Len Levinson told me once that Walter Zacharius, the man who ran Kensignton, was a rabid left-winger. Regardless, the William/J.A. novels appear to be very right wing, with Stand Your Ground itself given over to arbitrary digressions about the foolishness of liberalism. Mind you, I’m not complaining – I was chuckling throughout, mostly due to the arbitrariness of it all.

It looks like Pinnacle has tried to get on the Lee Child bandwagon with its own Jack Reacher; the William/J.A. union has, over the past decade, published a trilogy of thick paperbacks about John Howard Stark, a ‘Nam vet who, judging from the synopses of the three books, has spent a lot of time killing Mexicans who have attempted to invade America – taking advantage of those weak borders, naturally. For all intents and purposes, Stand Your Ground is another Stark novel, yet curiously his name is not mentioned on the back cover. Instead, we are informed that the hero is Lucas Kincaid (a badass name if ever there was one), a former soldier on the run from the government who is hiding in the small town of Fuego, Texas – location of a prison which a horde of Muslim terrorists have just been transported to.

My friends, don’t you believe it. Lucas Kincaid is a minor character at best for the majority of the book (which runs a too-long length of 408 pages). And forget about those ass-kicking qualities the back cover attempts to convey for Kincaid. The dude spends the first 300 or so pages sitting in front of a computer in the prison library! Rather, John Howard Stark is the true protagonist of Stand Your Ground, and either Pinnacle didn’t promote this as another Stark book because they were trying to launch Kincaid as the new William/J.A. hero, or perhaps the book was written by a different ghostwriter than whoever turned out those earlier Stark novels.

But then, even Stark isn’t the main protagonist. One of the main problems with Stand Your Ground is that there are just too damn many characters for the reader to contend with. I mean it’s like a right-wing War And Peace at times, as “J.A.” presents us with a host of Fuego locals, visiting left-wing journalists, and vengeance-minded Islamic radicals, all of them vying for the reader’s attention. William Johnstone also had big casts in the books of his I’ve read, but at least he’d gradually whittle the narrative span down to focusing on just one main character. Not so for J.A., which results in an unwieldy narrative mess at times.

The back cover also has it that the plot of Stand Your Ground is about a bunch of terrorists who invade Fuego to free their imprisoned comrades, taking the school’s high school football team hostage and threatening to kill them one by one until their demands are met. Well, this sort of happens…in the last 60 or so pages of the book. Before that the novel just keeps building and building and building…toward something. Annoyingly, every chapter – even every section within a chapter – ends on a cliffhanger, no matter how forced, which only makes the reader more eager for something to happen.

Because the thing of it is, the shit-kicker, right-wing residents of Fuego know something’s up, and they know the rotten liberal government in Washington isn’t going to do anything about it, but damned if it still doesn’t take them way too long to realize their asses are in the fire. The book is almost an exercise in constantly putting off the fireworks. Whereas normally I’d bitch and moan about this, for Stand Your Ground I really didn’t mind – mostly because “J.A.” takes the opportunity to bash liberals again and again and again. This book is in every way the exact opposite of another I recently read, The Hydra Conspiracy.

Stand Your Ground occurs in the near future, perhaps in 2024, ten years after the publication date. I did estimate that 2008 must’ve been the “over ten years ago” date which is often mentioned by the characters, complaining about how that’s when the country first started going to hell – the year Obama was elected into office, of course. But this novel gives a picture of progressive liberalism run amok, a world which we are heading toward in reality. While it never gets as over-the-top as the similar potential future in NYPD 2025, it shares the same sentiments: liberalism is stupid, its adherents are brainwashed hypocrites, it weakens society, and it is ultimately dangerous.

What’s interesting though is that, despite all the “grown up” politics stuff, the book is almost written on a Young Adult level. There is a curious lack of cursing throughout (other that is than a very late utterance of the word “fuck”), absolutely no sex, hardly any exploitation of the female characters, and rather muted violence – people die, to be sure, but the author rarely details the carnage. In other words the book is PG-13 at best, which leads to the unintentionally humorous outcome of a right-wing book that has been Politically Corrected. The author also tends to overdescribe things, which again lends it a juvenile vibe; the momentum is constantly halted so we can be informed how characters react to dialog or action or whatever, as if the author doesn’t want the reader to encounter a single bit of mystery or confusion.  (The cynic in me figures this is just the author catering to the perceived reading level of his audience.)

Which isn’t to say the writing is bad – indeed, I get the feeling that this particular “J.A.” might’ve served some time at Gold Eagle, or perhaps was just a fan of Don Pendleton. There is that same assured craft to the prose, and some of the single-sentence paragraphs sprinkled throughout definitely have the feel of Pendletonisms. And when things happen it all gets very good – it just takes a long time for things to happen. This leads me to believe that the author was handed an unwieldy word count, and thus had to keep staving off the climactic action until the fireworks promised on the back cover could actually occur.

At any rate, John Howard Stark is for the most part the central protagonist, and the novel opens with him visiting an old ‘Nam pal in Fuego. Stark is recovering from cancer – not sure if this was an element in the previous Stark novels – and he’s still a media notable, given all his battles against Mexican terrorists and drugdealers. His pal is the warden at Hell’s Gate Prison, near Fuego, and here a bunch of radical Islamic terrorists have been transported, the President finally having lived up to his promise to close down Guatanamo Bay (the novel is very prescient at times). Meanwhile the author presents us with our swarm of local characters, from the high school quarterback to the deputy with Down’s syndrome.

And meanwhile there’s Lucas Kincaid, the supposed badass, sitting in front of the computer in the prison library. He’ll be there for a good 300 pages or so. The mystery of his background is dangled throughout the novel, but in most regards he’s very similar to Stark, though younger – an Army Ranger, he expressly ignored orders and saved some of his comrades during some action in the Middle East. Now he’s in hiding, under the assumed name of “Lucas Kincaid” (meaning he chose his own badass name, which is pretty funny), and he decided to hole up in the nowheresville of Fuego, TX, even chosing to work at the prison’s library, because who would look for a wanted felon in a prison?

We also get many scenes from the point of view of the terrorists – which again lends the novel a Gold Eagle vibe – in particular Dr. Hamil, a well-known speaker of “Muslim issues” on the various cable news networks, where he insists that Islam is “the religion of peace.” However Hamil is in fact the leader of a terrorist cell – the novel predates the disgusting rise of ISIS, thus Al-Qaeda is often mentioned as the biggest Islamic terrorist faction – and he plots to destroy Fuego and free his jailed brethren as a message to the Americans. Yet he is also cagey enough to capitalize on the gullibility of the foolish liberal government – the author is careful to point out that Hamil and many of his followers are actually American-born citizens, raised in the country they secretly despised, wrapping themselves in the protective blanket of “progressive liberalism” to escape detection.

Representing the liberal front is uber-annoying Alexis Deveraux, a famous news journalist with a brick shithouse bod. Not sure if she too appeared in previous Stark novels, but she’s familiar with him and they dislike each other royally. Alexis has come to Fuego to document the recent transition of Muslim terrorists, whom she insists on referring to as “prisoners,” eager to point out how they’re being mistreated due to their religion and etc. Confusingly, though, she’s also brought along a Tom Brokaw-esque anchor to cover the story, despite the fact that Alexis herself is the one who keeps appearing in front of the camera, with the “anchor” relegated to announcing stuff like “We’re now entering the prison.” The author also seems unsure on how actual news broadcasting works – and humorously enough, so do the journalists themselves, with Alexis at one point not even knowing if they’re going out live across the country(??).

Around the halfway point things pick up. Hamil’s soldiers launch their attack on Fuego, and we read as various batches of slack-jawed yokels fight them off with hunting rifles and whatnot. The local cops for the most part carry the action here (Kincaid’s still pecking away at that library computer), with Stark meanwhile getting a tour of Hell’s Gate – just as Alexis and team have shown up to do their impromptu story. Handling the camera by the way is a sexy brunette named Riley who is not only a former Marine but also a Republican, something she keeps from her colleagues. (Humorously, calling someone a “Republican” is about the ultimate insult in this thoroughly liberalized near-future.) Riley, when she sees Kincaid in the library, recognizes him. By novel’s end they’re a couple, though the growing romance between them during the constant firefights which comprise the novel’s final quarter isn’t much explored and is hard to buy.

The finale sees the invading terrorist army heading for Hell’s Gate, where Stark and Kincaid muster the forces to stop them. It’s all very Assault On Precinct 13, and here some minor characters are killed off by Hamil as a sign of what will happen to those who oppose him – again, while Hamil and crew are presented as monsters, they are sadly nowhere near the level of our present reality; these guys are almost like Dr. Seuss when compared to ISIS. While Stark and Riley set up explosives, Kincaid marshals forces against the invading army, however the novel never does give me the scene I wanted, of a machine gun-toting Lucas Kincaid mowing down hordes of terrorists like a modern-day men’s adventure protagonist.

Oh and humorusly enough, when things finally start picking up in the last half and you figure Kincaid’s about to finally take over the show, the author doles out yet another badass who first takes on the terrorists, this one an old acquantance of Stark’s who commands an assault team which answers only to Texas senator Maria Delgado, serving as her personal (and private) army. Delgado is a strong female character, but because she’s a Republican she’s hated (sort of like how Maggie Thatcher doesn’t get any respect from the liberal feminists of today), and she instantly realizes something rotten’s going on in Fuego – I forgot to mention, but the President himself is behind the plot(!!). The author never describes him, but it’s intimated that he too is Muslim, or of Arabic descent – having gotten to the highest office by following the path paved by Barry Obama a decade before. 

But Delgado’s secret army is led by crusty Colonel Atkinson (whom Stark knew as a private in ‘Nam), and by novel’s end he has Stark on the force and Kincaid and Riley will also soon be asked to join. They are worried that a war against the government itself is on the way, and Stand Your Ground ends with Stark and Atkinson telling themselves that Fuego was “just the beginning.” No sequel has yet been published, but if one comes out it seems it will be about our heroes taking on the President himself.

Anyway, I did enjoy Stand Your Ground, but the barrage of characters and the constant forestalling of action got to be a drag. To the author’s credit, never once does he POV-hop, despite the plethora of characters; whenever he changes perspective, he either starts a new chapter or gives us a few lines of white space. I nearly wept in gratitude. And as I wrote above, the digressive attacks on liberalism were a “hoot,” as they say down here in Texas. In fact if anything I don’t think the author went far enough in this regard – the United States has only become more crazy in the two years since this novel was published.

The question remains whether William W. Johnstone himself would’ve enjoyed the novel, but one thing I can say without question is that this is a helluva lot better written than anything he could’ve done. And yet despite that Stand Your Ground misses the lovably bizarre amateurish quality Johnstone brought to his own works – not to mention the rampant sleaze. Here’s hoping Pinnacle asks its “J.A. Johnstones” to start veering closer to the style of sick Johnstone masterpieces like The Nursery – man, if the next Lucas Kincaid book is like that, I’ll snatch it up in a second!


Brian Drake said...

J.A. is actually Jo, William's niece. She maintains a Facebook page for the two of them.

James Reasoner said...

THE BLEEDING EDGE is my favorite of the John Howard Stark books. Of the non-Stark Johnstone thrillers published in recent years, I'm particularly fond of SUICIDE MISSION, HOME INVASION, and JACKNIFE.

Authorfan said...

Love it--your blog entry, of course.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. And Brian, that's really interesting -- after reading your comment I went back and checked out the bio of J.A. in the back of the book. Turns out it's worded so that J.A.'s gender is never actually mentioned! I thought that was pretty clever.

Darren Grano said...

Is that book a stand alone or part of a series?