Books

“If Reacher Were Real, He’d Probably Be Unbearable!”

Philosopher Andy Martin on the making and meaning of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.

Photo illustration of Jack Reacher books behind a copy of the new book With Child: Lee Child and the Readers of Jack Reacher.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Polity and Ebay.

Author Lee Child writes a Jack Reacher book every year, starting on Sept. 1, a habit that to date has produced 23 thrillers in the popular Reacher series. In 2014, author, philosopher, and Reacher fan Andy Martin perched behind the chain-smoking, coffee-drinking Child in his study to watch him write Make Me (2015). Martin then published his own book about the experience, which he titled using one of Child’s favorite terse stand-alone sentences: Reacher Said Nothing.

Martin has just published a second book about Reacher and his creator, called With Child. While Reacher Said Nothing records the making of Make Me in intimate detail, this second book is a reception history, collecting reactions to the book from fans, Child’s fellow authors, and the public. This idea might sound too meta for words, but the result is actually highly entertaining—a sui generis work of spritely literary analysis.

In a review, Martin once called Jack Reacher “a liberal intellectual with arms the size of Popeye’s”—a sentence that caught Child’s approving eye and led to their friendship, which, in turn, led to these books. As a Reacher fan myself, I wanted to ask Martin a few questions about the philosophy and politics of this huge, strange hero.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: First things first. Do you consider yourself a “Reacher Creature”?

Andy Martin: I guess I am! I’m a Reacher Creature in a white coat, with a certain degree of scientific detachment.

I noticed the dedication at the front of your first book about Child, apologizing to any fans who might have purchased it under the mistaken impression it was a new Reacher book. Did anyone whom you might consider a Reacher Creature read that book, by mistake or on purpose, and give you feedback?

Some read it on purpose and said, “This is the most fun I’ve had reading anything that’s not a Reacher book!” One said, “That’s like reading a Reacher book, but it’s literary criticism!” I was quite, as we would say, chuffed by that.

The worst reactions I got from readers to the whole idea of this project were from people who were worried I was going to mess Lee up by watching him too closely. At the start, that worry came from publishers. I can sort of see their point—it’s like, “Here we have a golden goose and here we have these wonderful golden eggs. Over here, we have this guy who’s a golden goose inspector. Do we actually need a golden goose inspector? I don’t think we do! Is the golden goose going to keep laying these eggs?”

At the time I thought that was ridiculous, but I can see now that this was a genuine anxiety, coming from fans too. Remember that “person from Porlock” who messes up Coleridge when he’s writing “Kubla Khan”? Coleridge goes to the door and comes back, like, “What! I’ve lost it now!” They thought Lee might be Coleridge and I would be the person from Porlock. “Stop, man, before you kill Reacher!”

I want to ask about the philosophy angle. You do teach philosophy, off and on. But these books are not, like, The Philosophy of Jack Reacher. That’s not what you’re doing.

No, they’re not. Though I have sometimes wondered about that. What’s Reacher’s philosophy, exactly? This is where I differ with the choice of Tom Cruise as Reacher for the movies. There’s the physiological difference [Cruise is small; the fictional Reacher is a giant of a man]. But also, Cruise is better at action. He’s very good at running—which Reacher is no good at! And Reacher can’t really drive, whereas Tom is great with the driving, of course—he’s always on motorbikes. Imagine Reacher on a motorbike! That wouldn’t work. [Laughs]

But also, there’s so much inaction in the books, and Reacher is very contemplative. And that sort of studiousness of Reacher … there are sequences in Make Me where Reacher says, “I’m going to go for a walk down a street, and stop here and get a haircut, and then later I’ll wander into a bookstore in this random way”—that’s a fine day for him. But then, “Unfortunately there are all these bad guys out here that force me to get involved in drama that I don’t really need! I get dragged into it!” That’s his attitude. He’s not a Bond or whatever. He’s a contemplative guy who gets coerced into action—rather than an action hero, which is how I think of a Tom Cruise type.

But he always does get involved, in the end! There’s a chapter in this new book where you put together tweets reacting to Reacher, and one person whose tweet you include describes the Reacher books as “crypto-fascist.” I have in recent years been thinking—and I don’t think I’m the only one—that we in the U.S. have far too much love for male heroes who are super competent, and who impose their will on other people because they think they’re better than them. In fiction, they always tend to do good things, like Reacher does. But in real life, often those people are jerks!

That’s an anxiety I think I share with you, and probably Lee does too to some extent. I think he feels like the zeitgeist has moved under him, a bit. Without putting words in his mouth: I know he’s got an essay which I haven’t read yet, about the hero—it’s not out yet. He traces Reacher’s own antecedents back to Theseus and the Minotaur, so there’s an element of replaying that mythical stuff. Reacher is a metaphor wrapped up inside a metonym: He’s given this realistic context in which to operate, but he is himself metaphorical or symbolic. If Reacher were real, he’d probably be unbearable!

Perhaps that’s why, whether you’re Tom Cruise or someone else, it’s so difficult to incarnate Reacher. Reacher is great as an idea. As an allegory of what people want or need. The machismo of it, it’s one of the evils of our age or of all ages. On the one hand, he’s our savior, but on the other hand, that’s what we need someone to save us from!

I think Lee feels that. He is a great egalitarian—I should stress that. In his politics he’s a pure socialist, in fact. Comes from a trade union background, used to be a trade union enforcer. And Reacher essentially is on the side of the little guy. But of course, he is a big guy!

And he brings his force to bear.

That’s right. I suppose that’s the paradox of the thing. Lee, for example, has certainly wondered about, but has not attempted to write, a book purely from the point of view of one of the female characters—giving the lead to one of the women, who generally becomes a sidekick to Reacher, getting her point of view in there … this is the point where you really need to be interviewing Lee rather than me! But I think he was preoccupied by the very same question you’re asking, what to do with that. The masculinity of Reacher.

There was a brief passage in With Child where you talk with Child about Laura Kipnis’ book of essays Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation, wondering how Reacher would fit into her observations. My feeling is that the female characters in Child’s books are just fine—I like them. What gets me more about the gender politics of the books is that Reacher characteristically stands apart from civilization—he doesn’t have roots. He has obligations to codes or ideas, but not to people or places. And that is a very traditionally masculine kind of heroism.

Reacher is very much like, if you think back to your Rousseau and the “noble savage”—le bon sauvage—he is wandering lonely as a cloud [like in the Wordsworth poem]. And in this vision, there’s no society, because he’s a pre-social figure. No domination or anything—just surviving. Lee Child has taken that character, le bon sauvage, and transposed him, hundreds of thousands of years, and plonked him down in the middle of America, to see what happens when there’s that kind of contact between Reacher and society. That’s why he perhaps has a certain kind of innocence to him, as well as a primitive nature: It’s a primitive innocence.

This reminds me, if you’ve ever read the Leatherstocking Tales—the James Fenimore Cooper books with Natty Bumppo as the hero—Bumppo is, like Reacher, a man who never puts down roots. The use of that archetype bothers me in terms of gender politics insofar as I’m not sure that a woman heroine could ever do that. Imagine a female heroine in a book who never cares for a child, never stays with a man. I think if there were a book about a woman like that, it would be a major part of her psychology. She’d probably be tragic, because of it.

Speaking of 19th-century novels, there’s an obvious example of that—the Madame Bovary case. Having been married, the character doesn’t like domesticity and starts wandering around. She’s become this dislocated and wandering soul—she’s read all these Romantic books and everything. And how does it end for her?

Not well!

And so you feel as though Flaubert is punishing the roaming, nomadic woman, who is such a rarity. Like, “You’ve gotta be stopped!” Tolstoy did the same with Anna Karenina. “A train for you!”

There’s a female character in a book I was just listening to on Audible … called Winter Dark … maybe a Lisbeth Salander–type character … I’m thinking of attempts to liberate female characters from that rule, and I do think there are some out there, now.

And maybe Lee is starting to feel that. If you go back to the first book, Killing Floor, the female character, it’s classic. Reacher blows into town, he meets a woman who lives there, then he blows away again at the end of the book. So you’re absolutely right: She’s the settled, sedentary figure and he’s the mobile one. It doesn’t seem fair, does it!

One last question for you. How big are Jack Reacher’s hands? Inquiring minds want to know!

[Laughs] Well! This reminds me of the letter I include in With Child, written to the London Review of Books, asking: “How can Reacher have abs? He eats too much pie! He eats in the diner! This is an insult to nutritional science!”

But we the shrewd readers know that Reacher is just a metaphor. He is a bundle of metaphors stuck together. Those fists are actually poetry in motion! They cannot be quantified. They’re limitless! And that’s why he cannot be stopped.