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The Nuclear Age
by Tim O'Brien
ISBN 0440215862 / 9780440215868 / 0-440-21586-2
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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 [via]