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Sunday, August 2, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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An Action-Packed Summer Read -- Tom Clancy's Latest Storms The Shores

Seattle Times Staff Critic

------------------------------- "Rainbox Six" by Tom Clancy Putnam, $27.95 -------------------------------

Rumblings in the distance are growing louder, as a phalanx of trucks approaches local bookstores. There is a diesel storm rising.

Tom Clancy is back.

Yes, fans, the latest humongous Clancy doorstop of a book - at 752 pages, a veritable Cortez Kennedy among action-thrillers - officially hits stores tomorrow. From there, it will undoubtedly commence liftoff for The New York Times' best-seller list and eventually a theater near you.

"Rainbow Six," a new techno-thriller about an elite international antiterrorist squad, has all the usual Clancy paraphernalia: action galore, taut plotting, state-of-the art weapons and heroic guys about whose safety the reader need entertain no serious fears.

The main hero here is John Clark, the ex-Navy SEAL who went ballistic in an earlier Clancy novel, "Without Remorse," and whom Clancy has called "the dark side" of his primary hero, Jack Ryan. (Ryan, of course, first surfaced in "The Hunt for Red October" and has since escalated into the most heroic American president since Lincoln).

Clark is quite a fellow, too. He has more decorations than the White House Christmas tree: Navy Cross, Silver Star with a repeat cluster, Bronze Star with Combat-V and three repeats, three Purple Hearts, et al. He's the hero of many covert international missions in which the Free World's bacon was definitively saved.

He may be pushing 60, but Clark can still run with the big dogs, and he still gets that dangerous look on his face that makes smart people not want to mess with him.

There are many stupid people in the world, however, and Clancy has a field day with a bunch of environmental extremists who are the chief (though not only) villains of "Rainbow Six." These wackos have concocted a biological blowout more deadly than anything Saddam Hussein could ever contrive, an apocalypse that will heal Mother Nature and get the buffaloes roaming again on the prairie.

The extremists of "the Project" first manifest themselves in a puzzling series of terrorist strikes, which conveniently begin just as Clark's tautly trained Rainbow squadron is ready for action. But why, they wonder, are they being called upon to counter such incidents as a hostage scenario at a Swiss bank, a high-level kidnapping at a German Schloss and a raid on a Spanish amusement park in which innocent children - two of them in wheelchairs - are held at gunpoint?

Could these incidents be related? That's the question John Clark ponders, but all Clancy fans know the answer: You bet your nuke-launching sub they're related.

The story opens with an attempted hijacking aboard the jet that's taking Clark and his teammates (and their families) to England, where the Rainbow organization is based. The terrorists certainly picked the wrong jet to hijack. The action almost never lets up - except when enviro-crazies prose on at boring length about their exceedingly unrealistic utopia - through hundreds of pages to the finale at the Sydney Olympics, where eco-Armageddon is supposed to strike.

Clancy's supporters often claim that his writing style has changed and developed over his 14 years of best-sellerdom. But let's face it: The style and structure of "Rainbow Six" isn't really all that different from "Red October." (There is, however, a sad dearth of submarines in this landlocked thriller, and that's a pity; nobody does subs with Clancy's level of swashbuckling glee.)

About the only thing that has changed is that there are many more ruminations on how little fun it is to get old, especially for an action guy. Clark is well into middle age, like his creator, and "Rainbow Six" is peppered with mordant observations about looking at "the next major milestone on his personal road to death (with) the number sixty on it."

Like a literary farmer of sorts, Clancy strolls his fields, scattering seeds here and there, and we watch the seedlings come up in a pattern that at first seems random. The action caroms, seemingly illogically, as Clancy introduces characters and subplots that continue to grow and grow, liberally fertilized by lines such as, "Looking at (the Rainbow warriors), John Clark saw Death before his eyes, and Death, here and now, was his to command."

Death, of course. But also millions of dollars in book sales. Here is your summer beach book, one that will not only weigh down your towel in a hurricane, but also provide hours of high-excitement reading and a few calluses from speed-flipping the pages.

Do we care that the protagonists are not masterpieces of psychological complexity, or that the few women characters are rudimentary objects designed to bear babies and get kidnapped? Frankly, we do not. This is Clancyland. This big dog makes his own rules.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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