The American home front during World War II serves as metaphor for a fallen world seeking renewal in the latest from Crowley (Lord Byron’s Novel, 2005, etc.).
The action takes place in an aircraft factory in formerly oil-rich Ponca City, Okla.—and in the memories of several brilliantly realized characters. These include Dutch-American siblings Henry and Julius Van Damme, whose company has been entrusted with mass-producing America’s largest warplane; disabled plant worker Prosper Olander, whose roots lie in an unidentified northern city and a confused family history; several splendid women with whom Prosper forges close relationships; and idealistic Pancho Notzing, a self-styled philosopher who preaches a relativistic gospel embracing imperfection and diversity. In a tricky narrative that weaves in and out of the novel’s present (1942–5) and lavishly detailed flashbacks to the characters’ earlier lives, Crowley creates a fascinating microcosm: an insular, though globally inspired and involved alternative world that’s as radical an invention as the bifurcated world of his classic fantasy Little, Big (1984). The theme of an embattled idyllic America suddenly vulnerable to threats to the “four freedoms”(of speech and worship, from want and fear) enumerated in FDR’s third State of the Union address, is spelled out in the stories of Prosper’s sufferings growing up with a curved spine; his first lover Vi Harbison’s exuberant experiences as a softball pitcher; her successor Connie Wrobleski’s unhappy marriage and sexual renewal; and, just before a climactic occurrence wipes Ponca City’s slate clean, the intellectual road taken by Pancho en route to a fructifying vision of a “Harmonious City” that incarnates the ideal of full equality for all. Crowley further enriches his text with complex allusions to classical mythology and Shakespearean drama; Prosper evokes both The Tempest’s hero-sage and the wounded Fisher King whose sacrifice redeems a stricken Waste Land.
More rich, satisfying food for thought from one of America’s most imaginative and accomplished novelists.