SONS OF EARTH by Richard Rhodes


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Kidnap-suspense doesn't really mix well with essayistic musings on astronauts and celebrity; but that's the odd, intermittently effective combination in Rhodes' new novel, his best (despite many flaws) since The Ungodly. The narrator here is ex-astronaut Reeve ""Red"" Wainwright--who walked on the moon, almost burned to death on re-entry, got divorced, drank a lot, went home to a Kansas City farm, started an energy-consulting firm, and wrote a bestseller on solar energy. Now, however, just as Reeve is giving a Playboy interview to his old flame, reporter Paige, his teenage son Chris is kidnapped. . . by a smelly sociopath named Grabka who wants, among other things, revenge on the Air Force (he was court-martialed for drug-smuggling). So unless Reeve comes up with $500,000 in gold, Chris--who's been buried underground in a wooden box with a space-capsule-style life support system--will be left to die. Where will Reeve get the money? Well, some will come from his N.Y. publisher, some from an old chum who's now a TV evangelist, and some from a Carter White House aide (who'll alert the FBI). But each of these crass helping hands (Business, Church, Government) wants something in return--as Rhodes makes crudely clear in a series of heavyhanded scenes, And meanwhile there are glimpses of foul Grabka and of poor boxed-in Chris, who sings rock songs to himself to stay sane. Finally, then, the ransom is paid (after one fearful foulup), Chris is saved (and turns his nightmare into a hit tune), Grabka is nabbed--and this scenario provides moments of solid suspense. But moments only. . . because it's often interrupted--as Reeve quite implausibly takes time to ruminate on: the space program (with a recreation of his own flight); celebrity (""people thought we were Magic Slates to write their wishes on""); Grabka's motives (""it had to feel good to coerce a man. . . he perceived to be powerful enough to stand in for the father he dreamed of who was so much more than the father he had""); or miscellaneous socio-cultural opinions. And there's a distracting technical flaw here too: Reeve narrates everything, including the thoughts and actions of Grabka and Chris, in the first person--which leads to considerable artificiality and confusion. Still, portions of Reeve's sermonette/ monologue are crisply engaging. And the kidnapped-son trauma generates a few affecting scenes. So, even if Rhodes fails in his attempt to weave thriller and essay around a knot of themes, this is his most consistently involving fiction in quite some time.

Pub Date: June 2nd, 1981
Publisher: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan