Recently, I discovered something about myself that, quite honestly, I did not like. It has to do with a fictional character: Dirk Pitt, the ubiquitous creation of bestselling author Clive Cussler.
For those unfamiliar with Pitt, he is the central character in about two dozen novels, these spanning over four decades. The stories are thrillers, lots of action/adventure, much of it at and below the sea, with bad guys and danger galore. Pitt is project director (later the head) of NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Agency), and along with sidekick Al Giordino he is usually found diving on ancient shipwrecks, discovering a lost city, or something like that. The writing is a bit heavy-handed, the plots often over the top—but to be honest, this series—pure escapism—has always been one of my favorites.
A REAL LADIES’ MAN
Pitt, still a major in the Air Force, is a strong presence that women seem to find irresistible. His escapades with those of the opposite sex are prevalent throughout the series, especially in the earlier stories. And therein lies the reason for my opening comment. I shall endeavor to explain, with the requisite backstory.
From the 1970s through the early ’90s I read every one of Dirk Pitt’s adventures, and I eagerly awaited Cussler’s next book. When I took a long hiatus from my own writing to work with other wanna-be authors in order to make a living, I also took a lengthy break from reading novels for fun, given the numerous student and client manuscripts that needed my attention and left me bleary-eyed. Still, for a while I continued buying every new Dirk Pitt adventure that was published, and for years they gathered dust on my bookshelves, just waiting to be opened.
But yaay, I finally retired a couple years ago, and since then I’ve been reading only for fun. I’ve read new books and re-read old ones galore, and it has been an absolute pleasure. More recently, I decided to revisit all of the old Dirk Pitt adventures, catch up to the ones on my shelf, and continue with the later ones. That would keep me off the streets and out of trouble for a while. 😊
THE STORIES DIDN’T CHANGE…I DID
Chronologically, the first three books in the series are titled Pacific Vortex! (author’s exclamation point), The Mediterranean Caper, and Iceberg. I would have loved to edit the first book—but that’s another story. The plot—looking for a mythical underwater city in the ocean near Hawaii—was fine. But Pitt’s encounters with a number of women…wow, did this sort of hint at—sexism?
In The Mediterranean Caper, Pitt has just flown into a military base off the coast of Greece and saved it from being attacked by someone in a World War I bi-wing plane. (As I said, the plots are cool.) He goes to an isolated beach for a swim, and naturally one of the most gorgeous women he’s ever laid eyes on (they’re all like this is his world) shows up. They talk, she reveals that she’s been mourning her late husband for many years—and Pitt slaps her across the face and tells her to get a life! Her response should have been, “Fuck you, asshole!” after she kneed him in the cajones. Instead she says, “Why did you strike me?” and after he lectures her, they have sex. Say what!?
In Iceberg, a story with nonstop action, a gigantic iceberg is found with a ship and its dead crew frozen inside of it. Pretty cool, ya think? But the sexism continues—at least when Pitt is not pretending to be gay, which entails about half the story. Words like “fag” and “faggot” are tossed about. As one reviewer on Goodreads indicated, the “blatant sexism and homophobia” has caused him to abandon the series, which he loved.
And for me, here is the scariest thing of all: I don’t recall that these issues, which disturbed the hell out of me in present day, ever bothered me when I first read the books back in the 1970s-1990s.
Who knows, maybe being a Baby Boomer, I was just a product of my times. In the ’70s Virginia Slims, a brand of cigarettes targeted at women, said, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” But in truth, they still had a long way to go, and many of the horror stories about sexism and abuse are only now coming to light.
Speaking of the above Goodreads review, here is an interesting exercise. Go to Google and enter “Dirk Pitt sexism.” It is a real eye-opener.
So, do I continue reading the series? I haven’t decided yet. I do know that, in later books, Pitt has a “true-love” relationship, and even later he gets married. Maybe the times dictated a change in the author’s approach. Cussler is pushing eighty-seven at this writing, so in all likelihood his stories also reflected the era from which he came. Maybe I’ll take that into consideration to get through Dirk Pitt’s fun, outrageous adventures. For now, the jury is out.