June 01, 2017


Target Omega: A Thriller. By Peter Kirsanow. Dutton. $26.

     Herewith, an all-purpose paragraph suitable for speaking by the hero of any book that labels itself a thriller and has the word “target” in the title: “Mayhem is about to ensue. When I find out who did this, when this is over, I am going to kill them all. Every one of them. Every man. Every woman. Children, if they did this. Babies, if they were involved. I will kill their dogs and their cats. I will kill their hamsters. I will kill their goldfish. I will kill their shrubbery. I will kill their lawns. I will kill every blade of grass, every dandelion, every piece of crabgrass. I will kill their trees. I will kill their bushes. I will make sure they can never, never, do anything like this again. Until the next book.”

     Now, that specific paragraph appears nowhere in Target Omega, although portions of it actually do. And they are so formulaic, so typical of the “thriller” genre, that they are almost funny, except that of course you are not supposed to laugh – you are supposed to be mesmerized by the exploits of the steely-eyed, ultra-powerful hero who is forced by horrific circumstances to take on legions of nameless and faceless multinational enemies and captivate everyone he encounters with his steel-trap mind as well as his ultimate proficiency with weapons of all sorts, including various lethally employed parts of his own body.

     If all this sounds much like what James Bond and innumerable Bond wannabes have done since the days of Ian Fleming (who died as long ago as 1964), that is indeed the vein of heroism and international intrigue into which Peter Kirsanow taps, although he does not quite bleed it dry (that would prevent sequels). Kirsanow crosses the Bond formula with a kind of James Grady Six Days of the Condor “sleeper agent” narrative – except that Kirsanow’s pacing is more like that of Three Days of the Condor, the movie that was made from Grady’s novel and used a supposedly even-more-thrilling title, “six days” having been deemed insufficiently frenetic. You know the type of narration: every chapter starts with a date and time (the latter in the appropriate time zone to agree with the thrilling setting where the latest thrilling events take place). As for the plot, it is the type usually described as “ripped from the headlines,” because it involves explosive Middle East tensions, Russian and Iranian cooperative duplicity (or duplicitous cooperation), North Korean evil and sneakiness, threats to the very existence of Israel and perhaps the United States, and the hyper-heroic but vastly overmatched good guys facing off against the standard cast of feckless and/or duplicitous bureaucrats. The bad guys are invariably ugly, usually described as reptilian or, in the case of one of them, as resembling “a bloated frog” and “a well-dressed toad.” And there is even a “Bond girl” here, complete with “a smokin’ body,” although, this being the 21st century rather than Fleming’s 20th, she is a) extremely brainy and efficient, and b) black.

     As for characterization, there is none. Charisma, yes – hero Mike Garin has that in spades and every other suit in a deck of cards. There is one unintentionally hilarious reminiscence in which he single-handedly rescues top American operatives from certain death at the hands of unending mounds of charging Taliban fanatics, through a maneuver that strains even the minimal credulity required for reading books like this.  And the unintentional hilarity does not stop there, or with Garin’s exploits. In one crucial and surpassingly far-fetched scene, a single ultra-powerful bad guy armed with a major and very conspicuous military weapon appears in downtown Washington, D.C., during rush hour – a time so well-known for what it does to traffic that the perpetual slowdowns are mentioned repeatedly in the book – and manages to find a hole in the incessant traffic exactly large enough to allow him to blow up several vehicles, kill a bunch of the people in them, and kidnap someone, all without harming any bystanders or, for that matter, attracting any attention from them. The absurdity here mounts to such a crescendo that Kirsanow even has his rather dim characters express surprise at how the bad guy pulled it off. Hint: authorial assistance.

     Every single plot element in Target Omega has been used before, again and again: Garin has to have some connection with humanity, so at one point he has to rescue his sister, who knows a deep, dark secret about her brother and is in her way just as tough as he is in his. Betrayals and double-crosses are a must, and they are plentiful here. Enemies in high places, indeed the highest ones, are needed and are dutifully supplied. Terrible things are inevitably telegraphed through prose that practically screams, “Formula!” One single example among many: “Life was good. And joyous. And fun. And it was about to get even better.” Guess what happens within five paragraphs?

     For all its veneer of seriousness and geopolitical awareness, Target Omega contains absolutely nothing that can be taken the slightest bit seriously by anyone who wants to enjoy the book. And it is enjoyable in its fast-paced, highly cinematic, rat-a-tat-tat progress, whipsawing readers around the world and piling up improbability upon improbability so Garin will be completely, totally, 100% isolated from everything that is good and righteous and important and meaningful and left to, quite literally, save the world on his own. Except for a couple of helpers – for instance, the brilliant analyst recently dragged into government service who is a genuine seer, able to figure things out so well that he is nicknamed the Oracle, and who, like any good seer in a book like this, is blind. Kirsanow, a debut author who actually works for the federal government (uh-oh), has picked the bones of his chosen genre clean in practically every way in creating this thrilling but exceedingly vapid compilation of stereotypical plot lines and characters (including a never-seen behind-the-scenes puppet master who, in James Bond’s world, would have been patiently stroking a white cat). It is a fair bet that any clichés missed in this book will be picked up and trotted out in the sequel. The only real question is what Kirsanow can call the next Garin novel, since “omega” is the last letter of the Greek alphabet. Maybe something from Latin. How about Target: E Pluribus Unum? You heard it here first.

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