THE NUCLEAR AGE.

O'Brien, Tim.

ISBN 10: 039454286X / ISBN 13: 9780394542867
Published by New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. dj, 1985
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Hardcover first edition - First edition. O'Brien's extraordinary, and hard-to-describe fourth book, which opens in 1995 with a man digging a hole. Fine in a very near fine dustjacket (an unread copy - slight typical fading on spine of dj.). Bookseller Inventory # 26372

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Bibliographic Details

Title: THE NUCLEAR AGE.

Publisher: New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. dj

Publication Date: 1985

Binding: Hardcover

Dust Jacket Condition: Dust Jacket Included

Edition: 1st Edition

About this title

Synopsis:

Going After Cacciato (winner of the National Book Award in 1979) was widely acclaimed as one of the most powerful and emotionally vivid novels about Vietnam. Now, writing with the same sharp, richly expressive language, the same edgy dark humor and complete honesty, and the same rawness of nerve and energy, Tim O’Brien gives us an equally powerful novel about growing up as a child of anxiety—thebig anxiety, the one that’s been with us since the fifties, when we finally realized that Einstein’s theories translated into Russian.

It’s 1995 and William Cowling is digging a hole in his backyard. He is forty-nine, and after years and years of pent-up terror he has finally found the courage of a fighting man. And so a hole. A hold that he hopes will one day be large enough to swallow up his almost fifty years’ worth of fear. A hole that causes his twelve-year-old daughter to call him a “nutto,” and his wife to stop speaking to him. A hole that William will not stop digging and out of which rise scenes of his past to play themselves out in his memory.

The scenes take him back to his quietly peculiar adolescence (No. 2 pencils had a surprising significance), to his college days, down into the underground, and up through several stabs at “normal” adulthood . . . they take him from Montana to Florida, from Cuba to California, from Kansas to New York to Germany and back to Montana as he makes him way through an often mystifying—but just as often hilarious —labyrinth of fears and desires, obsessions and obligations, blessed madness and less-than-blessed sobriety . . . they take him into the lives of a shrink who’s a whiz a role reversal and of a dizzying eccentric cheerleader; of radical misfits and misfit radicals; of an ethereal stewardess (the traveling man’s dream); and two guerilla commandos who mix shtick and nightmare in their tactical brew. And each scene is a reminder of the unbargained-for-terror that has guided him to the bottom of his hole. For this digging is his final act of “prudence and sanity”—he’s taking control, getting there first, robbing his fears of their power to destroy . . . or so he believes. But is this act really sane? Is his daughter’s estimation of his emotional well-being (“pretty buggo, too”) the only truly sane statement being made? Is sanity even the issue? In the dazzling final scenes, William turns from the hole—from his past and from his future 0 to himself, digging deeper and deeper to find his answers.

The Nuclear Age
is pyrotechnically funny and moving, courageous and irreverent. It takes on our supreme unacknowledged terror (whose reality we both refuse to accept and all too easily accommodate ourselves to), finds it lunatic core, and shapes it into a story that speaks of, and to, an entire age: our own, our nuclear age. It is an extraordinary novel.

Review:

In 1969, 22-year-old Tim O'Brien was drafted and eventually sent to Vietnam. In a memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone and two works of fiction--Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried--he revisited the war, crafting gut-wrenching tales of terror, death, and futility among the rice paddies and jungles of Southeast Asia. In The Nuclear Age the author explores the road not taken: his hero, William Cowling, avoided the draft and spent the 1960s, instead, in a welter of antiwar radicalism. But soon one begins to wonder how different life in the underground, with its strange mix of idealistic visionaries and glory-seeking psychotics, really is from the battlefields of Vietnam. Enlisted in the ranks of an antiwar paramilitary organization in Florida, William remarks to his radical girlfriend Sarah that the group is "like a death squad. Can't tell the good guys from the bad guys, they're all gunslingers. Completely scrambled. But it's lethal. I know that much, it'll kill somebody." Nevertheless, he sticks it out in a noncombatant capacity and resurfaces several years later at the end of the war as a profitable trader in uranium.

Success hasn't dulled William Cowling's survival instinct, however; at the novel's start in 1995, the now-middle-aged businessman is busy digging a bomb shelter in his back yard. Nuclear war has been a particular obsession of his since those childhood drills back in the mid-1950s during which he was expected to crawl under his desk at school and cover his head against fallout. Forty years later, he still isn't taking any chances. His daughter thinks he's crazy, his wife is on the verge of leaving him, but still he digs--and as he digs he reviews the events in his life that have led up to this moment. The Nuclear Age is especially strong when it focuses on William's childhood and the complex web of relationships that exist within families. Less successful is O'Brien's portrayal of his character's obsession with nuclear war; though we are meant to see William as the only truly sane man in an insane world, all too often he comes across as genuinely cracked. Despite the book's weaknesses, it has many strengths, not least among them being Tim O'Brien's fierce intelligence, black wit, and eloquent prose. --Alix Wilber

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