Originally Posted Online: Jan. 05, 2013, 11:43 pm
Last Updated: Jan. 06, 2013, 12:29 am

Global intrigue, moral issues spark R.I. man's novel

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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

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Photo: Paul Colletti
Brian Alm's book, "A Tide in the Affairs of Men".

It seems as if Brian Alm's whole adult life led to the publication of his first novel, the action-packed political thriller "A Tide in the Affairs of Men."

The 68-year-old Rock Island man earned bachelor's and master's degrees in English from Augustana College and the University of Chicago, respectively. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, and he worked for several years in corporate communications for Deere & Co. and edited an international rental-business management magazine, the latter two jobs often taking him to Washington, D.C. And for the past 20 years, Mr. Alm has taught public speaking at Scott Community College.

His 398-page book -- published by Bloomington, Ind.-based iUniverse -- was 20 years in the making. It centers on Stan Olsson, a former Navy man who isan American literature teacher in Minneapolis. (Mr. Alm has taught English at Western Michigan University and was also a newspaper editor.) Mr. Olsson gets a mysterious phone call and meets a man who will change his life -- working for a "ghost ship"surreptitiously acquired and armed to intercept vessels smuggling drugs in the Caribbean.

As the clandestine operation travels through the labyrinths of the federal bureaucracy and the whirlpools of power in Washington, the interwoven network of complicity, both active and unwitting, raises a chilling question: Are men molded by duty, or do they mold duty to their own will?

"If a cause is just, must the means to address the cause necessarily be just?" Mr. Alm said of his morality tale from his secluded home near Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island. His wife, Diana, first thought his book was autobiographical, but rapidly found out it wasn't, he said.

"What is good and evil? At what point does one become the other?" the new author asked. "How are people involved changed by events? You find some people are zealously for the thing, get a little cool, and then turn. The hawks may become doves, and the doves may become hawks. There's a lot of character reversal."

Mr. Alm mined his experiences in the Navy and in Washington, with world travel (he's been to 58 countries), and with the written and spoken word in creating this believable, authentic alternate reality, which is among the hardest things he said he's ever done.

"You've got to concentrate like you've never concentrated before," he said."It's a big canvas, and it does take meticulous care. I had no idea how difficult it is to write a novel until I did it."

"When you're creating reality instead of simply reporting what already exists, you have to be constantly alert to avoid inconsistencies, mixing characters up, putting events in the right order, etc.," Mr. Alm said. "You can't ever lose your focus. It's exhausting."

One reader compared the novel to works by best-selling author Tom Clancy (whom Mr. Alm has never read); a former lobbyist and congressional aide said he nailed the workings of Washington; and an old friend -- a professor emeritus of rhetoric from the University of Richmond -- likened his commanding prose and control of detail to those demonstrated by Tom Wolfe.

"Brian Alm has given us a masterful plot peopled by believable characters," Jerry Tarver, the retired prof, wrote on Amazon.com. "He has an ear for dialogue and an eye for detail. Alm asks the reader to ponder the issue of vigilantism at a much more complex level than, for instance, the Charles Bronson version of Brian Garfield's 'Death Wish.' I found it a highly rewarding and enjoyable experience."

Mr. Alm said he has received many emails from other professional writers and former Navy people asking him to write a sequel, which he's seriously considering.

Though he's been retired from his Moline-based magazine job (under the American Rental Association) since 2005, Mr. Alm keeps busy, and his activities include researching and writing notes on a new novel. He wrote a yearlong series on ancient Egyptian religion for a London journal, and plans to publish that in book form, and he teaches three speech classes a semester at Scott.

"I can't think of anything that is more rewarding to teach than public speaking," he said. "You're actually doing something here and now, instead of learning to do something someday." Speech is used to inspire others, and Mr. Alm gets to witness "the courage that you see people take in reaching down into themselves and pulling out their innermost passions and beliefs and concerns, and sharing them selflessly with other people. You don't see that every day."

"They come in terrified, and they come out beating their chest -- two-fisted and ready to take on life," he said of students. "The growth you see in a four-month period is just astonishing.People rise to the problem, and in the process, they become very confident themselves."

During his Navy career, Mr. Almparticipated in the April 1970 recovery of the Apollo 13 spacecraft, which splashed down in the South Pacific Ocean. He was working on a 1,200-member crew ship at the time, and the ship went down to pick up the Apollo crew as it landed. The planned third moon landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded, crippling the service module, with limited power, loss of cabin heat, and shortage of potable water.

"Sailors are a rough and direct-spoken sort of lot, and on that flight deck, you couldn't hear a sound," Mr. Alm recalled. "There were a few guys praying, but the rest of them were just as silent as they could be, until that capsule came through the clouds. Then, man, they went nuts."

"The NASA guys thought it was the triumph of the space program," he said. "They got these guys back."