Michener Award–winning storywriter author Piazza (Blues and Trouble, 1996) delineates a historian’s midlife crisis in his first novel, recipient of the Faulkner Society Medal.
Narrator John Delano, a professor at Hollister College in Connecticut, made his reputation with studies of the Cold War focused on imagery rather than content. A former student who’s now a hotshot New York editor has given him big bucks for a book to “approach the Cold War strictly from the surface, as you do in class.” But Delano can’t write it. His father just died, he’s had some unpleasant run-ins with fellow professors who disdain his “value-neutral” methodology, even his wife, an earnest labor organizer, is increasingly alienated by his deconstructionist attitude toward life. He’s plagued by unwanted memories: of his childhood in Atlanticville, Long Island (“classic Levittown-style suburbia”); of his father’s free-floating anger, rabid conservatism, and eventual nervous breakdown; of his sweet younger brother Chris, whom he hasn’t spoken to in eight years. Of course he can’t get out of his professional bind until he grapples with his personal problems, so the overdetermined plot sends him off to find Chris, who has fallen in with a nasty bunch of white supremacists in Iowa. Our hyper-self-aware protagonist realizes that he may want to reconcile with his brother just so he can use their meeting as fodder for a book to give his editor in place of the one he can’t write, and this knowingness is a problem with My Cold War as a whole. Everything is analyzed to death, and the insights are stale. You feel you’ve heard it all before, right down to the glib finale, in which Delano heads toward his hometown and turns off to visit the Atlanticville Historical Museum, where his past is under glass as an architect’s model of the suburban development he grew up in.
Intelligent, sharply observed, often very funny—the portraits of various trendy academics are a scream—but never gets beyond generic Baby Boomer angst.