Preachy and grandly tragic portrait of the artist as a young A-bomb-maker.
Lanky, unquestionably brilliant US atom bomb scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, long a fictional model for geniuses evil, good, and merely misunderstood, gets an elegiac treatment here. We meet him on the desolate banks of the Rio Grande, on the site of the future Los Alamos labs, seeking solace and healing air for his tubercular lungs. A figure of dreamy, doomed complexity, with an avowed Marxist wife (who soon lets motherhood quell her revolutionary passions), Oppenheimer, a Berkeley physics professor with an obsession to understand the world through scholarship, soon lets his mystical appreciation of nature, his righteous loathing of the Nazi war machine, and his fierce desire to be the mensch his immigrant family wanted, lead him not only to create the ghastliest symbol of technological hubris, but to suffer through the betrayal of colleagues and the humiliation of Red-baiting investigations that ultimately damn him as an untrustworthy security risk. Expatriate Thackara's (The Book of Kings, 1999, etc.) fictional retelling of gee-whiz brainstorming sessions with Fermi, Bethe, and the diabolical Teller, and of science-for-science's-sake conflicts with the bluntly crude General Leslie Groves, have moments of excitement, culminating in the weirdly beautiful horror of the Point Zero test explosion. There's a great story here to tell, but through struggling to wring every irony and bitter truth from somewhat stilted scenes, and through being lugubriously fascinated with Oppenheimer's capacity for suffering, Thackara pads his telling with windy explications and clumsy Creative Writing prose (" . . . in the acute relief of letting himself be caught up in their pride for him . . . Robert suddenly knew what he must do").
Uneven dramatization of America's technological triumph at the expense of her ideals.