When I was growing up, my local library was one of my favorite haunts. It was by walking through their stacks and perusing their displays that I came across many of the books that I would take home to enjoy. One of these was Charles D. Taylor’s novel. Before Tom Clancy made his millions churning out tales of Cold War-era conflicts between the superpowers, Taylor published his tale about a battle between American and Soviet armadas in the Indian Ocean. I can still remember how I was drawn to the stark minimalism of the dustjacket, and how eagerly I devoured the description of the battles that waged between the opposing vessels. Recently I encountered a paperback copy of the book at a used bookstore, and seeing the book again brought all those memories of reading it flooding back, inspiring me to reread it to see how well it well it has held up.
What stands out most today are the very elements I avoided when I first read it. More interested in the naval battle than I was in the characters, I skipped over Taylor’s development of the novel’s two central figures. Though commanding forces on opposing sides, the two men, David Charles and Alex Kupinsky, are both portrayed as honorable men who over the course of their careers develop a strong friendship towards one another. Taylor first matches them up against each other during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the two young lieutenants find themselves on ships facing off against one another in the blockade. They meet face-to-face over a decade later while stationed as naval attaches in London, by which time they have gone on to further distinction in their respective careers.
All of this is meant to add a layer of tragedy to the battle that the author situates at the heart of his novel. Yet for all of his effort Taylor fails to develop his two main characters beyond this. Instead they become little more than archetypes of great naval officers – smart, dedicated, brave, and patriotic leaders of men. Even the log entries and letters that Taylor inserts between the chapters don’t do a lot to differentiate them or flesh them out beyond the roles they perform. And these two represent Taylor’s most sustained effort to develop any of the characters in his book, as the rest are often little more than names or even just titles inserted to play supporting roles.
This matters when it comes to the action. It was here where the contrast with someone like Tom Clancy stood out for me; by developing his characters to the degree that he does, Clancy used them effectively to convey the emotional impact of the action in his books. By contrast, the action in Taylor’s novel comes across more as zapping targets in a video game, with little real emotional impact conveyed in the description of the thousands of men dying as a result of the battle. It all feels incredibly hollow and pointless, an excuse for writing up what amounts to a paper exercise hypothesizing what a 1980s naval battle might look like. The artificiality of the premise and the conditions only underscores this, as it’s all so Taylor can have his ships pounding each other to smithereens.
In retrospect, its easy to see why novels such as Taylor’s are not regarded as great literature. For all of the enthusiasm their authors bring to writing them, by prioritizing the action over the characters they leave out what it takes to make for truly gripping fiction. The result is little more than a series of descriptions of imagined battles that in this book are conveyed with all the enthusiasm and punch of the rattling off of a list of ships’ names in a column. It makes me realize just how much my appreciation of the book is tied up with nostalgia for my naïve youth, and how in the end this caused me to remember this book with more fondness than it deserves for its merits.