Remembering Clive Cussler, Gleefully Nerdy Storyteller of the Sea

Remembering Clive Cussler, Gleefully Nerdy Storyteller of the Sea

Clive Cussler. Dirk Pitt. Al Giordino. Rudi Gunn. Admiral James Sandecker. St. Julien Perlmutter. Hiram Yaeger. Dirk Cussler.

The names are just fun to say, aren’t they? Only the first and last of those are real people, but the first — who created the whole lot — was always happy to blur the lines between his own life and those of his characters. He wrote himself and his cars into his own novels, and his jacket-flap bio began, “Clive Cussler’s life nearly parallels that of his hero, Dirk Pitt.” Of course his son, who grew up to become his literary collaborator, shared a name with that hero.

Yesterday, the day I learned Clive Cussler has died at the age of 88, I was reading one of his Dirk Pitt books. A coincidence, yes, but it doesn’t make me unusual: reading Clive Cussler may be one of the least unusual things about me. In his half-century writing career, Cussler (and yes, that was really his name) became a reliably bestselling author whose chunky books could be found at supermarket checkout counters, entering the vaunted ranks that include Danielle Steel and John Grisham.

I picked up my first Clive Cussler book as a tween. The book, Pacific Vortex!, piqued my interest with its peek-a-boo paperback cover; it did not escape my interest that one of Dirk Pitt’s other adventures, Deep Six, shared a name with both a Transformer and a G.I. Joe character. This guy might be for me. I ultimately read several Cussler books as a teen, and a few years ago I returned to read the whole series chronologically.

Currently, I’m up to number fourteen: Flood Tide (1997), in which the intrepid Pitt sets out to foil a Chinese shipping magnate whose evil scheme involves rerouting the flow of the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya River so as to force the Gulf’s shipping traffic into his own specially-constructed port. It’s thrilling, of course, despite a problematic plot element involving the smuggling of undocumented immigrants, persistently referred to as “illegals,” who constitute one of the book’s two “flood tides.”

By Flood Tide, Cussler (with the enthusiastic approval of his voracious readers) had settled comfortably into a pattern. His books would open with a historic disaster, fictional but more or less plausible, typically creating a shipwreck that Pitt and his National Underwater and Marine Agency colleagues would have to locate in the present day. The “present day” was always a few years ahead of the book’s publication, giving the books a lightly science-fictional element and allowing Cussler to introduce inventions like, in Flood Tide, a virtual-reality VCR.

After establishing the dastardly villain Pitt’s up against, usually an industrial titan with the backing of one or more corrupt governments, Cussler draws his adventurer into the fray with an episode that takes Pitt by surprise: after all, as we’re constantly reminded, by profession Pitt is a marine engineer at a government agency dedicated to science and exploration.

By the time the book’s half-over, it’s personal. Having learned of the past and potential human toll of the evildoer’s activities (up to and including imminent threats to literally all life on earth), Pitt hunkers down to work out a plan. That leads to a big confrontation in the second half of the book, with the shipwreck left as a kicker at the end. By the book’s inevitably happy conclusion, Pitt’s typically headed off — cracked ribs, routinely gunshot body, and all — for some R&R with a sexy paleontologist or U.S. congresswoman. (In 1988’s Treasure, he even hooks up with the Secretary-General of the United Nations.)

Like many great popular artists, Cussler captivated his fans with his ability to work variations on his basic themes. You could always count on reuniting with the author’s well-worn characters: the clever Pitt, his trusty BFF Giordino, their cigar-chomping boss Sandecker and his right-hand man Gunn, the corpulent epicure Perlmutter, hippie hacker Yaeger, and others.

You could count on a history lesson that holds to the factual record until the revelation of a tantalizing prize thought to be lost forever. You could count on an action scene involving one of the classic cars Pitt hoards in his airplane-hanger home, cars that eventually began to appear in photographs featuring the author on the books’ back covers.

What you didn’t know was where Pitt would head off to this time, what locations Cussler would establish in loving detail, maps and all. You didn’t know how these engineers would get drawn away from their scientific pursuits and have to hoist their sidearms yet again. Best of all, you didn’t know what insane ideas Pitt would get while on the job. Cussler’s best moments as a writer involve his truly cinematic action scenes — like a car chase down a ski slope in Treasure, or a ride across the desert in a jury-rigged land yacht in Sahara (1992).

James Bond is an obvious touchpoint, and much of Cussler’s appeal came from the fact that, like Ian Fleming, he based his adventure stories in a milieu he knew and loved. Cussler was in fact an underwater explorer, if not quite on the order of Pitt, and he knew the ropes. His books drew on extensive research, and his characters are rarely more content than when they’re settling in to lecture or be lectured on the history of the indigenous empires of South America, or the changing landscape of north Africa, or how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages the Mississippi.

That’s why Pitt’s boon (if inevitably temporary) female companions aren’t models, but Ph.D.s and politicians. Cussler described Pitt as a lover of incredible allure, but he didn’t write sex scenes. Instead, his characters’ intellectual intercourse would go on for pages.

It’s that gleeful nerdiness that perhaps most endeared Cussler to his readers, and that cut the characters’ nominal red-meat masculinity. Every woman who visits Pitt’s apartment — poised high above his hanger of planes, a train, and automobiles — finds the atmosphere incredibly virile. The more you try to picture the place, though, with its furniture built from scavenged ships and the boat-helm headboard towering over the bed where the magic happens, the more it sounds like a marine engineer’s version of a comic-book shop.

Cussler had a long and incredibly productive run, having accomplished in one lifetime what most people would need at least two for. Still, his death left me with a melancholy strangely akin to what I felt when David Bowie left our mortal plane. It’s not a personal sadness, like you feel when a friend or relative dies, but a sense that a certain, magical range of possibilities have gone out of the world. What would he think of next? Now, we’ll never know.

The adventures of NUMA — both the fictional organization and the real-world equivalent founded, of course, by Cussler — will doubtless continue. Clive Cussler’s adventures, however, have come to an end. Raise a Cutty Sark on the rocks to the staunchest old salt of the shelves.

Jay Gabler