THE NUCLEAR AGE
It's been noticed by historians that when centuries turn they also encourage lots of end-of-the-world fantasies and falderal. O'Brien (Going After Cacciato, 1978) seems here to have fleshed out a brace of short stories, then made of this novel-length amalgam something that tries to be explosive--with a big, long fuse of apocalypticism. But this centerless, flogged-on, and jerry-built bomb of a book just sits there and fizzles, on and on and on. . . Short story #1--and the better of the two--concerns the youth of William Cowling. We see him in 1995, as he's digging an enormous hole outside his Montana home, not precisely sure whether he means to hide himself and his family in it before a nuclear holocaust--or whether he means to bring that about himself. What's clear, though, is that William has always been nuke-spooked. As a child in the Fifties, he fashioned a shelter for himself from a ping-pong table covered with lead pencils; such behavior moved his parents to take him to a psychologist even more spooked than William was. The period flavor here is outstanding innocence meeting infinity in nightmare. Short-story #2, which accounts for much more of the book, is unfortunately another matter. Here it's William gone to college in Montana, meeting up with Sarah Stouch, a cheerleader who, under the relentless pressures of the Vietnam-era, moves from pom-poms to clandestine arms-hoarding and terrorism. William and Sarah cleave to one another despite his better sense--but the scenes of their terrorist activities have to be some of the least credible, most cardboard in recent fiction. Sarah is too mercurial, William too sappy; the other characters are out of a comic book, without a hint of the truly murderously dangerous ineptitude of the kind in a book like, say, Max Crawford's The Bad Communist. Plot-shoots invariably seem forced; William has a consciousness that streams but never dams; and O'Brien's obviously strenuous effect at the end seems all to be for this: "What's wrong with me? Why am I alone? Why is there no panic? Why haven't governments been toppled? Why do we tolerate our own extinction? Why do our politicians put warnings on cigarette packs and not on their own foreheads? Why don't we scream it? Nuclear war!" This book--elaborately cobbled-up but weightless, trivial--almost answers these questions perfectly.