STALLION GATE by Martin Cruz Smith
Kirkus Star


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The months leading up to the Los Alamos A-bomb test of July, 1945--as seen through the eyes of Sgt. Joe Pena, a Pueblo Indian who has been assigned as chauffeur/bodyguard to J. Robert Oppenheimer, a.k.a. ""Oppy."" (Oppy and Joe are old acquaintances from teen-age riding days in New Mexico.) In this slick yet awkward mix of fact and fiction, Smith (Gorky Park) manages to put Joe in the midst of every conceivable conflict going on at Los Alamos--while also exploring Joe's identity-crises as a Native American with enough smarts and talent (he's a gifted jazz pianist) to make it in the white world. Joe's immediate boss is the Chief of Security, Capt. Augustino, a paranoid sadist who's secretly intent on proving that moody Oppenheimer is a Communist spy. (Joe--who's been caught sleeping with Augustino's wife--must do pretty much whatever the Captain tells him.) Meanwhile, Joe is falling in love with another of Augustino's spy-suspects: mathematician Anna Weiss, a sexy German-Jewish refugee who begins (like a few other Los Alamos scientists) to have grave doubts about the morality of an A-bomb, especially after Germany's surrender. Meanwhile, too, some local Pueblo Indians engage in minor attacks on the Los Alamos operation--so Joe finds himself reluctantly aiding these offbeat, elderly guerrillas, thus reasserting his Indian identity. And, when not fingering the real Soviet spy, Klaus Fuchs, Joe is planning his postwar future: in desperate need of $50,000 to buy the region's top jazz nightclub, Joe (a former G.I. boxing champ) arranges to fight in a big-money match--which just happens to coincide with the night of the crucial bomb-test (""Trinity"") at Stallion Gate. Along the way, Smith's episodic narrative features several vividly detailed, shrewdly researched vignettes: a visit to the test-site with Oppy and Gen. Groves, director of the Manhattan Project; a black-comic truck ride with hot plutonium--and a fatuous psychiatrist--in tow; the extermination of radioactive cows; the dangerous, idiosyncratic preliminary bomb-tests; evocations of chic, boozy, wartime Santa Fe. But Joe is a sentimental, crassly synthetic all-purpose hero--a bright, sexy giant with talents, hang-ups, and loyalty-conflicts at every turn. And the busy, dithering subplots never come together effectively--despite a wildly contrived finale that pushes Joe and villain Augustino into a death-duel at the test-site just as the final countdown gets underway. Heavy promotion and the Gorky Park byline may lift this intriguing, unsatisfying hybrid--too oblique (occasionally even pretentious) for thriller momentum, too implausible and tinny for serious involvement--to bestseller status. But readers will find far richer, far more persuasive fictional treatment of Los Alamos in Thomas Wiseman's uneven but compelling Savage Day (1981).

Pub Date: May 2nd, 1986
ISBN: 0345310799
Publisher: Random House