The Nuclear Age by Tim O’Brien (Knopf: $16.95; 312 pp.)
In his well-received “Going After Cacciato,” Tim O’Brien gave us a look at the horror and nervous black humor triggered by the Vietnam War. His new novel explores events in this country while the no-win war wound down.
“History had finally caught up with itself,” his narrator-protagonist William Cowling tells us. “On Nov. 30, 1967, Eugene McCarthy announced his presidential candidacy. Robert Kennedy sorted through the scenarios. In the city streets there was organized disorder. . . . Abbie Hoffman was now a somebody. Jane Fonda was making choices. Sirhan Sirhan was taking target practice; LBJ was on the ropes; Richard Nixon was counting noses; Robert McNamara was having second thoughts; Dean Rusk was having bad dreams.”
The mixture of bemusement and sarcasm in O’Brien’s style and in Cowling’s narration is uncannily perfect in capturing the mood of young America in an era of possible Armageddon. Fearful, alienated, mentally confused and with a growing sense of helplessness, Cowling is a true child of the Nuclear Age, born with a mighty fear of The Bomb. He begins his story in 1995. The century is ending and so, apparently, is his world, in one way or another. As he prepares to keep his wife and daughter captive in their “ideal redwood” home in an addled plan that may escalate into their, and his, destruction, he reflects on his life and times.
In flashbacks, we see Cowling progress from frightened preteen, using the family Ping-Pong table as a fallout shelter, to a fidgety, considerably less than charismatic campus ban-the-bomb spokesman, to a hopelessly ineffectual underground revolutionary, to a man in search of a “normal” family life. Ironically, he eventually discovers that his only hope for salvation lies in his providing ingredients for nuclear warheads. The Bomb ceaselessly affects his mind and life and spirit, as it does all of us on a more subliminal level. What is foremost in Cowling’s thoughts is at least tucked away at the back of ours: sooner or later, ka-boom.
There is a meeting of many literary minds in O’Brien’s novel. We get flashes of Joseph Heller’s irony, Don DeLillo’s dark humor, Aldous Huxley’s witty pessimism. And we meet a fascinating updated version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s golden girl in Sarah Strouch, the ‘70s flapper, a terrorist with fantasies of becoming the ultimate cheerleader. O’Brien, himself, is obviously a literary man; his novel is to be read, not translated to another medium. He has power in his prose and a clear view of his purpose. And his characters, though bizarre, are fully developed and very, very human. Cowling keeps telling us: “The bombs are real.” For the reader, the happier news is that he’s real too.