Washington writer Christopher Buckley says Tom Clancy is a hard target to resist. All he has to do is think about the best-selling writer of techno-thrillers and he gets this irrepressible urge to needle, this twitching in his typing fingers.
"His pomposity and arrogance just press my buttons," says Mr. Buckley, author of several novels and son of conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. "It just makes me want to go up behind him and stick him in the ass with a pen. He emits the most satisfying yelps."
And Mr. Buckley laughs. He laughs often when he discusses Mr. Clancy.
For a few months now, Mr. Buckley's been giving in to the urge to provoke, resulting in a literary duel of minor proportions played out in acerbic articles and an exchange of snide faxes. So far it's been nothing on the order of the drink-flying, punch-throwing Gore Vidal-Norman Mailer bouts, or the Mary McCarthy-Lillian Hellman dustup of 1980, which resulted in Ms. Hellman's filing a $2.25 million libel suit. But Mr. Buckley can always hope. So he keeps tweaking Mr. Clancy, author of "The Hunt for Red October," and seven other novels.
"I've got another cartridge in my barrel," Mr. Buckley says, referring gleefully to a letter he has written to Rolling Stone magazine. The one-page letter responds to a Dec. 1 Rolling Stone article in which Mr. Clancy, part-owner of the Baltimore Orioles who lives in Calvert County, claims his critics pan his books because they're envious of his phenomenal success.
"If the question is Do I wish I made thirty million dollars a year, the answer is 'You bet,' " Mr. Buckley replies. "If the question is, Do I wish I could write like Tom Clancy, the answer must remain, 'No.' "
The letter has yet to be published. But then, Mr. Buckley has yet to hear any response to the grenade he tossed early this month in the Washington Post Book World, in which several writers were asked to write a few hundred words on their choice of an author to write their life story. For Mr. Buckley the choice was clear.
"I want Tom Clancy, the Maryland novelist, to write the story of the rest of my life," Mr. Buckley wrote in a 304-word riff published Dec. 4. "I would have the biggest guns, the very latest bombs. I would be able to kill anyone I wanted, especially foreigners with funny accents."
Having blasted Mr. Clancy as a jingoistic macho gun freak, Mr. Buckley sat back to await something. A shot over the bow, a fax, a phone call, a letter. Nothing happened.
Then in the Dec. 12 New Yorker, Mr. Buckley wrote a satiric version of a day's programming on the new Conservative TV Network, including a program called "THE GREAT BOOKS -- Tom Clancy talks about how he has grown as a writer."
Still no return fire.
"Why bother?" Mr. Clancy says. "It's a pity he can't write [his biography] himself," he says.
He was not so nonchalant in the fall when he saw an advance copy of Mr. Buckley's review of his eighth novel, "Debt of Honor," which appeared in the New York Times Book Review in October. Mr. Buckley, the editor of FYI Forbes magazine, opened the scathing notice by quoting Mark Twain's remark about one of Henry James' novels: "Once you put it down you can't pick it up."
At 766 pages, the novel is "a herniating experience," Mr. Buckley wrote, calling Mr. Clancy "the most successful bad writer of his generation."
This was not the problem, says Mr. Clancy. The problem was that Mr. Buckley broke a golden rule of book reviewing: never reveal the ending.
Thus, Mr. Clancy's first fax to Mr. Buckley: "Thanks for the review. Youseem to have inherited your father's hauteur, but, alas, not his talent or noblesse. Revealing a surprise ending for a novel is bad form, lad.
"For the body of your review, Dr. Johnson said it best: 'A fly, sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince, but one is but an insect, and the other a horse still.'
"Regards, Tom Clancy."
Mr. Buckley returned fax fire:
"I may be the insect, you're still the horse's arse.
"Regards, Christopher Buckley."
Which prompted this from Mr. Clancy: "Sonny, when your paperback sales begin to approach my hardcover sales in, say, England, do let me know. Until then, at least learn how to do a professional review. You dad knows how. Ask him."
Mr. Clancy says he meant the faxes to be funny, but apparently, "He took it the wrong way."
Mr. Buckley says the seeds of his Clancy-baiting were sown when Mr. Buckley was assigned by Regardie's magazine to interview Mr. Clancy shortly after "The Hunt for Red October" was published in 1984. Mr. Clancy, an insurance salesman at the time, was just gaining notice, and, says Mr. Buckley, an attitude.
"I recognized in the petri dish of his fame a disturbing bacillus. Geno type: ego," says Mr. Buckley, sounding remarkably like his old man.
Mr. Clancy can't quite figure how he became a prime target for Mr. Buckley, whose last book, "Thank You for Smoking," received good reviews but no berth on the New York Times Bestseller List, where "Debt of Honor" has been ensconced for 16 weeks.
"I don't know. I never met him," says Mr. Clancy, not laughing. When reminded of the two-hour interview at his insurance office so many years ago, Mr. Clancy pauses.
"You're right, I'd forgotten all about that," says Mr. Clancy. "Gee, he made a real impression on me."
Mr. Clancy says he wouldn't even call this a feud. Nothing like the time Ms. McCarthy appeared on the "Dick Cavett Show" and called Ms. Hellman "a bad writer and a dishonest writer." Nothing like William F. Buckley's televised tiff with Mr. Vidal at the 1968 Democratic Convention, where Mr. Vidal repeatedly called Mr. Buckley a "crypto-Nazi," and Mr. Buckley shot back with "Now listen, you queer . . ."
Nothing like that, says Mr. Clancy, who appears to be declaring a truce.
"He's had his laugh, I've had mine," he says, not laughing. "End of story."
Laugh for laugh, Mr. Buckley seems to be getting the best of the deal. But he acknowledges that the party seems to be over.
"I think it's unlikely our phone or fax lines will cross again," says Mr. Buckley. And he laughs.