Monday, December 05, 2016

The Road Home

Among the creative people who influenced my life and who died in 2016 was Jim Harrison.  Preparing to write a brief remembrance in this final month of that year, I found reviews of his books I'd written over the years.  I thought I'd add them to this online archive of my published and unpublished work.

I'll do them in separate posts, beginning with the earliest review I could find.  I've left in the inevitable repetitions so each review can stand alone.

Looking them over, I wonder if I didn't miss a major point about Harrison's work.  He dealt with primal themes and dangerous relationships.  In his most famous story, "Legends of the Fall," three brothers are in love with the same woman.  In Dalva/The Road Home, there's a marriage between half-siblings; two brothers and perhaps their father bedding the same woman, several marriages and affairs with siblings of spouses (though a widower marrying the sister of his dead wife is said to be a Lakota tradition.)

This is a version of my first published review of Harrison's work (in Orion Magazine.)  This novel remains my favorite--I consider it one of the best American novels of my time.

THE ROAD HOME, A Novel by Jim Harrison.
 Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998.
 464 pages.

"Nebraska reminds me of what America was supposed to look like before it became something else," Jim Harrison comments in "From the Dalva Notebooks," published in his book of non-fiction, Just Before Dark. 

Through swirls of events and thickets of passions, obsessions and relationships it takes two novels and some 800 pages to describe, the road home leads to the timeless Nebraska landscape, where as a kind of analogue to other natural cycles, members of the Northridge family walk and hunt with beloved dogs, eat and drink gloriously, make love, ride horses, read and treasure books as well as painting and music, watch birds, observe and take care of the land and each other, ponder, puzzle, reflect, regret and remember, as they had for over a hundred years.

 But from the opening sentence of THE ROAD HOME, the capacious and deeply satisfying companion novel to the stunning "Dalva" of a decade ago, the themes of mortality and time are also present. Lives are distorted notably by wars (World War I, Korea, Vietnam), while the land and Native peoples are insistently and inexorably destroyed by rapacious agents of greed and deadly beliefs. There are several deaths (the final home where the road leads) rendered with grace and ceremony and the elegiac rhythms of a writer with some years on his meter.

 But the road is also a way, a journey that demands consciousness, clarity and truthful statement, which Harrison produces in an abundance of cogent, witty, memorable, epigrammatic prose. This for me is the foremost achievement of this novel, and at minimum contributes mightily to the pleasure of reading every page. Harrison's years of meditation show clearly in this exactness, as does his reading of classic Zen poets who can be as least as ribald, tortured and funny as any American Beat.

 THE ROAD HOME takes the narrative of "Dalva" forward a little in time, but basically it adds more breadth and depth to the same events, concentrating on the perspectives of Dalva and her family: her grandfather ("a prairie Lear" as Harrison describes him in the Dalva Notebooks), the son she first meets as a young man ( who roams the western landscape as a deliberate contemporary nomad, trying "to understand the world, especially the natural world as I seemed to draw up short on human beings"),her uncle (and surrogate father), and her mother.

This pair of novels offers unusual possibilities--reading and re-reading each in relation to the other, reading parts of one that match up with the same time or event in the other, finding the symmetries that might be fate or beauty or both, and otherwise discovering the literary rendering of the hypertext of life.

 Harrison is rightly praised for his vivid evocation of the natural landscape and the values embedded in it, but what makes him one of the few novelists of non-urban subjects to win wide readership and establishment praise (even if the New York Times Book Review containing his rave review nevertheless put Tom Wolfe on the cover) is the unique landscape of his writing.

 His sentences are rhythmic and perfectly formed, his prose is often formal(he is the only contemporary writer I know who habitually uses the words "captious" and "otiose")but his paragraphs are as wild as river rapids. Sentences tumble from one subject to another, changing geographical locations and sometimes centuries, linked by rhythm and their own particular logic. Although almost everything in this book is presented as having been written down in journals and letters, Harrison's prose has the sound of speech, yet no one actually speaks this way, except maybe Jim Harrison, at least in interviews.

 I think of Harrison's work also as a bridge, for example, linking urban readers ushered by literary quality to the urgency of attending to the natural world, or by linking nature and culture as only someone with his credentials in both can do. Harrison is profligate and generous in naming the work of specific writers, and their importance in his characters' lives may encourage his readers to seek them out. For me, reading "Dalva" and its accounts of contemporary mixed bloods and the 19th century Lakota was a specific bridge to fiction that is by as well as about Native Americans. (In fact, I found my paperback of "Dalva" on a shelf marked "Miscellaneous" in a small town used bookstore in the central Pennsylvania mountains, along with Peter Matthiessen's "Indian Country," a book of contemporary Native short stories, and novels by Native author Thomas King. I bought and read them all, but started with "Dalva.")

The interplay of present and recollections or rediscoveries of the past form the basic movement of most of Harrison's fiction, and this rises to artful and powerful meaning in THE ROAD HOME. There is a sense here not of an ending but of a kind of completion, as well as in the coincident publication of Harrison's new and collected poems, THE SHAPE OF THE JOURNEY(Copper Canyon Press). "To write a poem you must first create a pen that will write what you want to say. For better or worse, this is the work of a lifetime," Harrison asserts in his preface to a series of Zen inspired poems, included in this substantial and revelatory volume. THE ROAD HOME is the work of a lifetime, in that sense and more.

 "With all our self-consciousness," writes Ursula LeGuin," we have very little sense of where we live, where we are right here or right now. If we did, we wouldn't muck it up the way we do." Jim Harrison's timely and timeless work has that kind of honesty, urgency and density. His achievement is to do so well what he observes in music of birds, as he writes in the last line of the last poem in THE SHAPE OF THE JOURNEY: "They sing what and where they are."

Here are some additional notes on this novel taken from a longer essay on four books by Harrison, Paul Shepard, Richard Powers and Linda Hogan.  It includes some repetitions from the Orion review but I've tried to keep them to a minimum.

JIM HARRISON's literary voice has always been unique and entertaining, and this aspect of his craft reaches something of an apotheosis in The Road Home. Partly it is the off-center language, a combination of the contemporary and antique (to my knowledge he is the only well-known novelist to regularly employ the words "otiose" and "captious", which to me are so arcane that I still have to look them up whenever I read him.) Partly it is the construction and cadences: while his sentences are logical and perfectly formed, his paragraphs are as wild as river rapids.

Within them sentences tumble from one subject to another, changing geographical locations and sometimes centuries, linked by rhythm and their own particular logic. Harrison typically builds his stories with an ongoing narration that links recollections of the main action, often as written in journals or letters. In this book, almost everything is presented as having been previously written down by the characters. Still, Harrison's prose always has the sound of speech, even if no one actually speaks that way, except maybe Harrison, at least in interviews.

This voice is heard most clearly in the many cogent, witty and epigrammatic observations and asides his characters make. All of these elements coalese somewhere near perfection in this novel, making every page a pleasure to read (especially after the first 100, which seem a bit awkward compared to the 350 that follow.)

Perhaps Harrison's years of meditation inform this exactness, along with his reading of classic Zen poets who can be as least as ribald, tortured and funny as any American Beat. Harrison's subjects and the elements of contemporary life are also odd, when compared to the dominant urban-centered and Zeitgeist-minded fiction.

In Dalva, his unhinged heroine came home to the family homestead, a sprawling ranch in Nebraska, established by the progenitor John Northridge in the mid 19th century. Dalva is a Northridge, a multigenerational family of Euro-Americans with several points of alliance and intermarriage with the Lakota Sioux of these plains.

The Road Home is a kind of sequel, moving the narrative forward a little in time, but basically adding more breadth and depth to the same events, concentrating on the perspectives of Dalva and her family: her grandfather ("a prairie Lear" as Harrison describes him elsewhere), the son she put up for adoption and first meets as a young man ,her uncle (and surrogate father), and her mother.

 There is a remarkable sense of continuity in these four generations, and it is predicated on the land. Life on the Northridge ranch is simple and yet highly cultivated. Here the Northridge generations hike, ride and hunt, eat and drink gloriously, read books and talk and write about them, keep journals and read past journals of others, so the past is a considered part of their present.

 Of course it wouldn't be a Harrison narrative without swales, dogs and garlic, so these too are part of his most integrated vision of home. 

There is one self-conscious wanderer in this book, whose journey to find a lost home is actual. Dalva's son Nelse, who as a young man read a magazine article about nomads (likely an excerpt of Bruce Chatwin's book, The Songlines) and set out to be a deliberate nomad, traveling the west with no fixed address, trying "to understand the world, especially the natural world as I seemed to draw up short on human beings."

 But Nelse was adopted and he doesn't know his mother's identity. His wandering takes on another purpose when he seeks and finds Dalva and his ancestral home, repeating Dalva's own journey in the previous novel, the last section of which was called "Coming Home."

This is another function of home in this novel: as a place where journeys begin and end, and where lives can be recollected in tranquility in between. The characters are torn from home by their own passions and obsessions (principally love and art); and their lives, particularly those of the men, are permanently distorted by war (from the Indian wars through World War I, Korea and Vietnam.) The road home is everyone's life's journey.

And so this novel--this two-volume saga--presents the births, dreams, marriages, sex, misunderstandings, regrets, brawls, tantrums, brushes with the law, even some gun-play of characters that live over a century of American history. The real-time events in the novel are mostly the rhythmic activities of daily life, and the big events are mostly remembered. Because of this considered, precisely expressed observation and thought, each event has texture and density.

In turn, memories and the thoughts and emotions they evoke give more weight and dimension to the simple acts of living, which become rituals of affirmation and grief. Harrison is rightly praised for his vivid evocation of the natural landscape and the values embedded in it, although here the landscape is also cultivated. This isn't wilderness or the Pleistocene--it is the Midwest formed from the frontier by stubborn Scandinavians, who provide Harrison with some piquant and McMurtryesque minor characters.

 Still, everything about this family refers ultimately and deeply to the land, including their name. Home is a place of grounding, and therefore it is vital that it be a home that sits in nature, that partakes of timelessness in the modern age. Like the homes of the foragers, it's a place to go away from and come back to, yet unlike the Pleistocene foragers, the contemporary forager is never quite sure where he is or what she's looking for, or why they wander.

 Dogs and horses are as individual and perhaps as important as people in this novel, and contact with the land is the lifeblood of these characters. It's when people can no longer ride or hunt that they know it's time to die.

The deaths, both violent and natural, are prominent, and several are described at length, giving this book an elegiac tone as well as an epic scope. The Road Home also leads to death, the home where the journey ends. The sense of elegy extends also to the land, which the characters often fret about, whether it is on the ranch or on the backroads. When one is faced with imminent loss, the only creative act is careful remembering. Memory is another home.

Off to the Side by Jim Harrison

As far as I can recall, this is an unpublished, personal response (though it might be on a blog somewhere) to Jim Harrison's 2002 memoir, Off to the Side.

Off to the Side is not your typical memoir of the current publishing Zeitgeist. There’s no straight through-line of bad boy goes through hell---a constant Survivor show from childhood on---to revelation, reform and what psychologist and author Dan McAdams calls the most characteristic American theme: redemption.

 Or even the celebrity memoir variation of the rise, the fall and the resurrection. So you’re unlikely to see him on Oprah, at least until she wisely chooses one of his books of fiction for her book club.

 That’s not to say there aren’t all those elements in there, although far more modestly than any best-selling memoir would dare. His concern is the texture and the truth of experience, not fulfilling a simplistic pattern, or even enacting an archetypal tale.

 The book is full of the same keen observations, wit and peculiarly artful sentences as his fiction, and even his interviews. Some of the subjects are familiar from those other sources, but he does cover some areas of his life unreported elsewhere, with consideration and candor. But like his characters, he tends to mix memories and times with general observations, staying true to his character’s experiences, and in this case his own writing the memoir. In this connection he chose a very apt epigraph for the book, from Rilke: “Beware, o wanderer, the road is walking, too.” 

 His childhood in Michigan during World War II was immersed in farm life and the natural world, and then by hunting, fishing and the wildlife near his family’s cabin on a lake. There is a quality of his attention then, and therefore later as a writer, that probably owes a lot to the fact that this was a pre-television childhood.

 It was one of the last ones, too. I was among the first generation of children to grow up with TV in the home, beginning when I was 4 or 5. There were advantages to having such wonders as enacted stories in your living room, but also disadvantages. My outdoor longings and experiences lacked informed attention, coherence, confidence or patience. But they were important nevertheless. Then again, though I lived with patches of woods and open fields nearby, I didn’t live on a farm, and my father knew little and cared less about the natural world.

Harrison writes of fishing with his father when he (young Jim) was in the grip of a melancholy time: “He had an uncanny ability to identify weeds, flowers, bushes by smell, and he suddenly said that curiosity will get you through hard times when nothing else.”

 Still, my small town childhood made some moments Harrison recounts familiar and emotionally resonant, as his “tearful pleasure” on a trip to New York, hearing live classical music for the first time in Washington Square, and when again in New York at the age of nineteen, he saw his first actual painting by a great artist (Modigliani), “my eyes brimmed.”

 He was a 4-H boy, and had an adolescent period of extreme Christianity, which involved memorizing large chunks of the King James Bible for contests, a possible key to his prose style. But the major event of his childhood was an accident that left him blind in one eye.

 A sensory disability tends to make the sensitive even more inward, but I believe there are some other little understood effects. I’ve only recently begun to realize how important my own one-ear deafness has been in my relationship to the world. For instance, the natural assumption is that a disability in one of the senses shifts emphasis to the others, as in the cliché of the blind person with extraordinary hearing. But I’ve come to believe a more accurate way to put it is that one focuses all the other senses on the work of the less able one. In my own case, I realize that I don’t “see better” because I’m half-deaf; it’s more that I hear partly with my eyes. And I don’t mean lip-reading, but a more generalized function of pouring visual information into making sense of the world in sound.

Also the quality of attention in the sense in question can become more acute, partly because there’s a subconscious process of filling in the gaps to make sense of the sense data. In my own case I can illustrate the concept with this example: I play a game of identifying the voices of actors in situations where they aren’t seen, mostly in “voice-overs” for TV commercials and documentaries. I am very good at this, even with relatively obscure actors, provided I have seen them as well as heard them in some earlier movies or TV shows. And when I remember who they are, it’s because in my mind I see their faces, and only then recall their names (if I can remember their names at all---a flaw in my ability to prove this.)

 So to me, that Harrison excels at visual description is not paradoxical. I’m sure his hearing and other senses (perhaps he too can identify weeds by smell) contribute to what he sees. It may also be why he has such visually rich dreams and “visions,” as some amazing ones he describes in this book. Not only is his brain assembling visual information from all his senses, but it works hard in doing so. That might also contribute to a feedback of visual imagery in dreams and visions.

 An event that haunted his life occurred when he was 25: his father and beloved sister waited around for him to decide whether he would go with them. He stayed home. A drunken driver hit their car, and killed them both. In this book he touches upon some of the ways this continued to affect him, and it likely adds a certain seriousness, skepticism, melancholy and sense of tragedy to his work. In any case, it is one of those companions that is always there, and often noticed.

 But by then he was happily married, and wondrously it was a marriage that lasted, even through periods of his obliquely described bad behavior. It grounded him in many ways. So his life as a writer, while it included Hollywood and wild times in Key West, also included home and children, usually in modest circumstances.

 My response to this life, as to his success as a novelist, which was one of my most persistent unrealized dream for my life, is the same mixture I feel when I see such a story in a movie, or even on something as vulgar as an awards show: a certain envy, but also a gratitude that at least it happened to somebody, and I can share in it for a moment vicariously. And as I stubbornly if possibly erroneously maintain, a vicarious joy is better than no joy at all.

 Harrison’s life took him to several cities and to academe. In particular he spent some time in Cambridge, Mass., where I had lived, and even though we knew some of the same places, it was at different times. I think I just missed the clubby poetry scene at Grolier’s bookstore, though maybe it was my own diffidence and impatience. Harrison knew the poet Denise Levertov, and had the same high opinion of her as a person that I did, having met her when she spent several days at my college. Later I discovered that when she was living in the Boston area she was good friends with a young poet, who had been among the last group of previous tenants of my apartment in unfashionable East Cambridge. She had been there often, as she confirmed in a postcard, our last communication as it turned out.

 Our respective experiences with other people we knew in common tells more about our respective writing careers. My only memory of the justifiably revered publisher Sam Lawrence (who published Kurt Vonnegut, among others) was a very brief meeting. I don’t even remember sitting down—just the sight of this tall, impressive, kind man, standing and smiling, a roaring fire in his fireplace behind him.

 Sam Lawrence (then at Delacorte) published Harrison’s first collection of novellas, that other publishers wouldn’t touch because nobody would buy it. It was titled Legends of the Fall, and contained that novella, which soon made Harrison famous and rich. The agent who did that deal was Bob Datilla. I met Bob once as well, a somewhat longer meeting. I had a list of ideas for magazine stories, and he suggested magazines to try with each of them, except one, which he said would not sell. I think we talked about book possibilities, but in any event he essentially agreed to represent me.

 Some time later he called me, and said he’d changed his mind. The idea he said wouldn’t work was about the malling of America, which became an article that took up nearly an entire issue of a magazine, and then my first (and so far only) book. Years later, I sent him a letter and a book proposal. He never answered the letter, and sent the proposal back with a huge NO in black defacing it. Needless to say, Bob Datilla is not my favorite agent, even though that’s currently a null set in any case. But he has been Harrison’s agent and a close friend for his entire career.

 The part of this book that’s newest in terms of what Harrison has written in earlier nonfiction and talked about in interviews is his recounting of his experiences in Hollywood. As elsewhere, there’s funny stuff here, and the image of Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Sean Connery with Harrison’s barbecue sauce dripping on their white suits is wondrous and hilarious cinema of the mind.

 Harrison worked in Hollywood (without being a resident) writing screenplays. He no longer does that, so even when he describes the venality of the movie business, he does so from a distance, taking into consideration his own self-dramatization and ego.

 Hollywood is just the template for what happens in publishing and related fields these days. So for those who aren’t acquainted with the extreme changes of fortune of an ego-ridden and whim-based industry, some of what happened to Harrison will seem exceptional. Of course, it’s extreme when it happens to you, and for those of us who’ve had similar experiences, there is a certain awe at the magnitude, but a feeling of recognition and solidarity.

 Because at one point, Harrison’s “Legends of the Fall” was slated to be directed by one of the cinema’s all time legendary directors, David Lean, and his novella “Revenge” was scheduled to be directed by another such legend, John Huston. Both movies were to be made by Warners, until the head of the studio retired, and the new regime axed both projects.

 Though he made a lot of money there, few of Harrison’s projects became movies. Still, he got to visit many Indian reservations to research a script on photographer Edward Curtis for director Taylor Hackford, and a sense-boggling trip to Rio for a Lou Adler project. Even a script that he came up with that did get made was a less than happy experience, and a less than good movie: “Wolf” with Jack Nicholson.

 He basically liked the movie version of Legends of the Fall, though he despised the TV movie made from his novel Dalva. He wonders why a movie should be so awful, since “It often seems quite inscrutable because it takes essentially the same energy to make a bad film as a good one,” paraphrasing, perhaps unconsciously, director Francois Truffaut.

 Harrison’s involvement with Hollywood figures began before he’d written his first screenplay. His only long-time novelist friend, Tom McGuane, was first to get tapped by Hollywood, and it was by visiting McGuane on a shoot that Harrison met Jack Nicholson, who then read some of his work, and eventually financed a year of Harrison’s writing when he was in dire financial straits, for a small consideration on any film that might ensue. The project was, of course, “Legends of the Fall,” not only Harrison’s most famous work, but his most talismanic.

 I felt reassured in my own judgments from a distance (or from brief encounters as an interviewer or observer) by Harrison’s generous assessment of some big name Hollywood actors and directors. He got beyond the idol worship and the cynicism to the intelligence and humanity of complex and talented people.

 These personal asides are meant to indicate the kind of interaction between my experience and what I was reading that is part of the experience of every reader. Others would notice and pick out different parts of this book.

 As for direct comment on his work, Harrison is conflicted and sparse. He does say that his novel Warlock is “the only book I’ve ever written that I loathe,” though he doesn’t say why. He refers to moments (when he finished The Road Home) and circumstances, but there is little about how he came to choose a subject (with one exception) or his approach, or methods, etc.

 That one exception is Legends of the Fall, but only that it arose from reading journals of the real William Ludlow (the father, played in the movie by Anthony Hopkins), who was his wife’s grandmother’s father. But there is other information in this memoir that links aspects of his life and thought to his fiction, in content and style. Readers may find it adds interest and texture to reading the fiction, perhaps occasionally illuminating something they find otherwise puzzling.

The English Major by Jim Harrison

I read his 1998 novel Coming Home as a culmination of Harrison's writing until then, but he was far from finished.  He published the novels True North (2004) and Returning to Earth (2007); novella collections The Beast God Forgot to Invent (2000) and The Summer He Didn't Die (2005.)  Then came this novel in 2008, which I reviewed for a weekly newspaper on the North Coast of California where I live--hence the emphasis on his protagonist's Eureka revelations--his Eureka! moments in Eureka.

The English Major
 By Jim Harrison
 Grove Press

 Jim Harrison is known as a master of the novella—his most famous work is probably "Legends of the Fall"—but he’s also written what I regard as an American epic with the 800+ pages of the interlaced novels, Dalva and The Road Home. This new one is an ordinary-sized novel, a first person narration on the comic side. It’s got the eccentric sentences and preoccupations that Harrison fans will recognize: sex, food, memory, siblings, dogs, landscape and the road, but with one more added: age.

 At the age of 60, Cliff is hanging on the edge of his old life, his last day on his farm in Michigan that his wife has sold for redevelopment, after divorcing him. Cliff hits the road, immediately hooking up with a hot ex-student from his early teaching days, the fortysomething Maybelle. Good luck, he observes, is a mixed blessing. “Forty-five years of sex fantasies come true and I’m thinking I wish I could go fishing.”

 While Cliff takes in landscapes he’s never seen, Maybelle stares at her cell phone searching for a signal. After Maybelle disembarks in Minnesota, Cliff makes his way to the North Coast from Oregon, on his way to visit his gay, show-business son in San Francisco.

It’s in Eureka that at age 60 he sees the Pacific Ocean for the first time. “The Pacific Ocean was more than I bargained for. At first I thought I might have a heart attack…I spent the next day and a half between Eureka and San Francisco hugging the coast as closely as I could and stopping a couple of dozen times for yet another look. The ocean became the best smell of my life.”

 As he approached Eureka, Cliff came up with the eccentric project that would eventually center him again: he would rename the 50 states and the birds of America. On the road he struggles to find the self that he’d left behind to become a serious farmer—the nimble-minded English major whose thoughts and feelings weren’t restricted to his fruit trees and birthing cows.  Yet it’s clear from his alienation from the cell phone world, as well as his deep ties to the land and farm animals that he’s also being pulled back.

 So will he change his life completely, perhaps devote himself to literary pursuits? Or will he reject change and revert?  Well, there’s no either/or for Cliff, or in this gentle, funny novel that should entertain all readers, but inevitably will have particular meaning for those of Cliff’s age—and Jim Harrison’s.

 For awhile, Harrison’s novels were structured as contrapuntal ruminations by at least a couple of characters. This one has but one voice, although the contrapuntal part is furnished by Cliff’s sudden memories versus what he’s actually going through or observing (mostly observing) at the time. The language is a bit simpler, especially in the beginning. This novel does not start well, but once it gets rolling, it takes you along.

 The basic style is the same, though. Harrison’s paragraphs are cascades of sentences that apparently have little to do with each other, although appearances can be deceiving.  His protagonists are often more comfortable in an American past that may or may not have existed, and he gives different reasons for this, and for their sometimes formal diction.

 In this novel, Cliff is navigating between two women, who both represent troublesome aspects of modern life: besides his cell-addicted, psychobabbling girlfriend, he’s rebounding from his real estate dealing, upper middle class wannabe wife. The conflict between Cliff’s age and his sexual desires and wandering eye provide discomfiting comedy that other oldsters may identify with.

 But the poignancy that stays with me comes from scenes like leaning for mutual support against a birthing cow he’s stayed with all night, or the photos he takes on the road, which are exclusively of various kinds of cattle. The sensual world is where Cliff lives, and reconciling it with the abstract demands and irrational insults of modern life seems to me to be the undercurrent common to a lot of his writing.

The Great Leader by Jim Harrison

The Great Leader (2011)
 By Jim Harrison
Grove Press

Jim Harrison has written a police procedural? The author of historical family sagas like "Legends of the Fall", whose last novel was entitled The English Major?

Like that one, this new novel is about a solitary man in his 60s dealing with his changing life, but here he’s a retiring detective obsessed with one last case, and this gives the personal journey a shape along with the momentum of the detective story.  Moreover, Harrison has created a credible character in Upper Michigan police detective Sunderson, with original qualities for a police procedural.

 Sunderson wants to finally nail the Great Leader of a religious cult who preys upon underage teenage girls, sexually and financially. Sunderson understands the sexual temptation all too well, thanks to his foxy young neighbor Mona, especially when Mona seems to invite his advances. But he resists, and their relationship is one of several that becomes complicated, funny, surprising and very, very human. Think Larry McMurtry meets Raymond Chandler, for starters.

 The police detective whose wife has left him is a genre (and especially TV) cliche, but for once there’s a reason: Sunderson could not help anticipating the worst (“If you’re a cop long enough even songbirds are under suspicion”) which was too relentlessly depressing for his wife, Diane, who has remarried, but reenters the story halfway through.

 More typical of Harrison, Sunderson’s best friend is Native American, and the detective (a former history major) feels the weight of the attempted genocide of whole peoples, as well as their land. (So there’s a certain poetry in the ending, which I will not give away.)

 Like anyone his age, Sunderson is also haunted by regret, yet he is sweating his way through a transition to new possibilities afforded by retirement. The subtleties of that process track the search for the cult leader. It’s one of several correspondences that make this a shapely novel.  It fulfills the expectations of the detective genre and of the novel form, which includes novelty. Both stories have vivid endings.

 Meanwhile there are the meditations on contemporary life expected in a Harrison novel, this time informally emphasizing the interrelationship of sex, money and religion. Harrison is really good at presenting a character in the rough, more comfortable in nature, but whose mind is active and alive.

 Along the way there’s Harrison’s unique writing: paragraphs that read like a random collection of non sequiters with bizarre (or no) punctuation, that keep you off balance for the explosive zingers that pop off the page.

 A bit of inside baseball, and maybe an inside joke: Sunderson mentions reading a book by poet Gary Snyder, and in the real world there’s a video on sale of old friends Snyder and Harrison talking (The Etiquette of Freedom) But that doesn’t stop Harrison from giving chunks of Snyder’s life (his college, his first book) to this novel’s villain.

Brown Dog by Jim Harrison

This review of Brown Dog originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.
In re-reading it, and noting that the first sentence of the Brown Dog saga was “Just before dark at the bottom of the sea I found the Indian,” I now recall that the title of Harrison's 1991 collection of non-fiction was Just Before Dark.

BROWN DOG (2013)
by Jim Harrison
Grove Press; 522 pages

Jim Harrison not only achieved fame with “Legends of the Fall” in 1979, he also revived a fictional form. At about 80 pages, it was longer than a story and shorter than a novel, and therefore an almost extinct species in mainstream fiction called a novella. It appeared in book form with two other novellas, the first of six such Harrison collections.

 All of these novellas were stand-alone narratives, with one exception. One tale in each of the five collections after Legends of the Fall was about an increasingly popular character called Brown Dog. Now this volume collects all the Brown Dog novellas plus a new one that carries forward and in some ways caps the series.

 Brown Dog fans have been waiting for this, and now they can share with other readers the rare if not unique experience of a chronological narrative written and published over some twenty years.

When Brown Dog first appeared in the collection The Woman Lit By Fireflies in 1990, Harrison suggested to an interviewer that it was his attempt to write something comic for a change.  But after the character’s second tale (in 1994’s Julip) he told other interviewers that there would be at least one more, mentioning both the picaresque tradition and the serial narrative.

The ultimate result is a sequential series of six tales that at a certain point engaged Harrison’s skills as a novelist, so that there are mysteries gradually unraveled (though some remain) and a main character who is not quite the same at the end.

 “Just before dark at the bottom of the sea I found the Indian.” With that provocative opening sentence, the first Brown Dog misadventures begin. They involve salvaging a dead Indian in full regalia preserved in the cold deep waters of Lake Superior, and the struggle over ancient burial grounds with some wily and ambitious young anthropologists that drives the narrative through the next novella as well.

 Brown Dog—otherwise known as B.D.—is 47 when we meet him. He grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan near an Indian reservation. He still lives nearby. An Indian girl gave him his name because as a lovestruck youth he was always hanging around like a dog. He doesn’t remember his parents and doubts that he is Indian (a question that gradually gets answered) but when a bosomy 24 year-old anthropologist shows up at the local bar, he’s not averse to pretending.

 His appetites, particularly for sex, often get him in trouble and lead to numerous episodes of ribaldry, but he is also deeply and happily grounded in the natural world of woods and water. His greatest ambition is to fish as much as possible.

 “Westward Ho” finds B.D. on the run from the law with a dubious Indian activist in Hollywood. To this point the novellas are primarily picaresque adventures, suggesting a rural American Tom Jones, or perhaps more appropriately, certain Native American tales about the trickster figures of Coyote or Raven.

 But with The Summer He Didn’t Die, the series—and this book—develops narrative direction and urgency, as B.D. tries to save his young stepdaughter, “a woodland creature” with a form of fetal alcohol syndrome, from a sterile state institution.

 After further adventures in Canada and Montana, B.D. is back home in the last and previously unpublished tale. A little older and a biological father with a contemporary twist, he feels the need for family and to make peace with his unknown past. At last he learns his parentage, with symmetries on several levels and a connection to at least one other Harrison fiction.

 Though a single narrative voice doesn’t emerge until at least a third of the way through the series, there’s no mistaking Harrison’s signature style. His paragraphs are like waterfalls of musically balanced sentences that don’t always relate in obvious ways. Observation, flashes of memory and epigram tumble together to achieve both bursts of illuminating surprise and a kind of mesmerizing momentum.

 As a book, Brown Dog is rich in character and incident, rude humor and melancholy. It is both heartfelt and ruefully real. It’s unusual and welcome in the number and variety of characters living on the geographic and economic margins, including educated small town professionals. Whether helplessly cruel or basically goodhearted, they all struggle with the often surpassing power of their impulses.

 B.D. himself emerges as a singular character, at once unworldly and self-aware, wounded and grounded, “virtually the opposite of anything the culture thought was acceptable” with a sense of wonder less engaged by billions of stars in the night sky than “the billions of green buds in thousands of acres of trees surrounding him” as he sits motionless on a tree stump in “a state much envied by the ancients.”

Thursday, August 06, 2015

70 Years After Hiroshima: Nuclear Threat Remains

“If I were asked to name the most important date in the history and prehistory of the human race,” wrote author Arthur Koestler in the 1978 prologue to his final book, Janus: A Summing Up, “I would answer without hesitation, 6 August 1945.”

Before then, each person lived with the prospect of individual death, he explained.  But “since the day when the first atomic bomb outshone the sun over Hiroshima, mankind as a whole has had to live with the prospect of its extinction as a species.”

Seventy years later, the danger of instant eradication in a global nuclear war seems past, and we are becoming more conscious of ecological threats to long-term human survival. But the nuclear threat is not over, nor is it confined to the possibility of isolated terrorist attacks. The threat of human extinction that begins with a nuclear exchange may still exist.

While most attention has focused on the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon in the near future, some 15,700 nuclear bombs are in the hands of 9 other countries right now, including some 5,000 weapons in active deployment.

All 9 countries with nuclear bombs are either expanding their arsenals, building new delivery systems or modernizing old weapons and systems.

Though the U.S. and Russia have reduced the number of weapons from Cold War levels, together they maintain about 1800 missiles carrying thermonuclear bombs on hair-trigger alert, ready to fire within minutes and therefore most susceptible to momentary miscalculation and accident.

Those of us who lived through the Cold War could read and see films about how powerful each one of these bombs can be: vaporizing every living thing for miles, igniting firestorms and spreading radiation for hundreds of miles or more, killing and maiming for years, with documented cases of genetic deformities in the next generation.

These terminal dangers were embedded in popular culture for decades. But as memories of Hiroshima and the Cold War recede, so apparently does awareness of the nature and danger of nuclear weapons.

 The US has ten times the number of nuclear weapons that US citizens believe there are, according to polls.  A survey of members of Congress revealed that almost none of them knew how many nuclear weapons are in the US arsenal.  But the US is not the exception--several studies show that knowledge about nuclear weapons today is low.

In popular culture today, nuclear war has been reduced to the bright explosions and apocalyptic fantasies of video games, including the latest version of Fallout Shelter. “Simulate a beautiful nuclear war right in your browser,” says the headline of a recent Popular Mechanics post.

More worrisome are movies and TV dramas that treat nuclear bombs like conventional explosions, only a bit bigger and more colorful. For example, in the 2014 Hollywood remake of Godzilla, a nuclear bomb many times more powerful than the Hiroshima device was detonated on the water apparently within view of the San Francisco shoreline without damage to the city or its people. Not even a wave. 

This is an irony worthy of Doctor Strangelove, since the original Japanese Godzilla movie was a response to the radiation dangers of hydrogen bomb tests in 1954, directed by a man who had seen Hiroshima shortly after its atomic destruction.

To misconstrue the true nature and difference of nuclear weapons could lead to horrific mistakes. The Physicians for Social Responsibility calculated that a relatively small nuclear “bunker buster” attack on Iran would result in 3 million deaths within 48 hours, and expose some 35 million to radiation. Radioactive fallout would reach into Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.  Radiation killed almost twice as many people in Hiroshima over the following five years than died on August 6, 1945.

But even without radiation as a factor, research conducted a few years ago found that a limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan (for instance) could lead to global famine within a few years, due to ozone layer damage caused by massive urban firestorms. If that study is correct, it’s another reason that a larger nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia could still lead to human extinction.  
In particular, the danger of instant nuclear annihilation remains because of those missiles on hair-trigger alert, especially with tension between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine and other matters, and both sides talking about nuclear options.

George W. Bush and Barack Obama are among the many leaders who have advocated an end to hair-trigger status. President Obama has the authority to take at least the 450 land-based ICBMs off hair-trigger. If Russian President Putin is serious about recent conciliatory statements, he could match that action. The 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb would be a powerful moment to do so.

My essay on the 65th anniversary of Hiroshima, and my essay that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on the 60th anniversary.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Return of the Bomb (2006)

This week in 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bomb dropped on human beings in Hiroshima, Japan.  It is yet another year in which awareness of the danger of nuclear weapons seems to be dangerously waning.  In a few days, I will post a new essay on that.

But that ignorance has recurred for at least a decade, as the end of the Cold War and the dogs of war unleashed by 9-11 continue to encourage that blithe ignorance, that stupid bravado, that sooner or later might well end the human race.  For that danger is just as alive now as at any other time since 1945.

The idea of using nuclear weapons has been raised in 2015 by both Russia and (in veiled language) by US and European allies, all around the time that the Ukraine was a hotspot.  Before then, the last time it was seriously discussed was in 2006, when the Bush administration was caught suggesting that nuclear bunker-buster bombs could be deployed against sites in Iran that were suspected to be gearing up for possibly creating an atomic weapon at some unknown time in the future.

As I write this, the treaty negotiated with Iran by the world's major power to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon is being opposed by ranking Republicans and others, some of whom contend that only the destruction of Iran will be sufficient.

The following is a slightly re-ordered essay I wrote in 2006, that was posted at Daily Kos and several other political community blogs.

Return of The Bomb

When he read the first detailed reports on the development of the atomic bomb in the same issue of the New York Times that told of that bomb’s first use in destroying Hiroshima, Norman Cousins wrote an essay that would be published within days in the magazine he edited, the Saturday Review of Literature. Though it may sound like a sedate and specialized publication now, it was widely read, with over a half million subscribers. It became a well-known and much discussed essay, especially when Cousins expanded it into a small book, titled Modern Man Is Obsolete.

 Cousins advanced several philosophical and political arguments in this essay, but he began with the most vital assertion: the dropping of the bomb meant that humanity had entered an entirely new era. Total destruction of civilization and possibly of humankind, perhaps of most life on earth, was now possible.

 This fact had to brought into the consciousness of the species, so humanity could try to take control of its fate. The power of the atomic bomb “must be dramatized and kept in the forefront of public opinion, “ he wrote. “The full dimension of the peril must be seen and recognized.”

Operation Crossroads Able July 1, 1946
But that task was always going to be difficult, as he learned just a year later. Cousins was one of the reporters who witnessed the first postwar atomic bomb test at Bikini island, in the summer of 1946. The bomb was dropped into the ocean, with numerous naval vessels in the vicinity to test the extent of its destructive power. But the observation ship was far away, and the bomb had missed the target so the devastation it caused was not immediately obvious. The first reports to the world gave the impression, Cousins wrote, “that the bomb had been ‘oversold’—that it was ‘merely’ another weapon.”

Operation Crossroads Baker July 25, 1946
That bomb had indeed been highly destructive, and the second bomb exploded in this series surprised even the bomb-makers with its ferocious power, sending a half-mile wide column of water a mile into the sky in a single second, and spewing quantities of radiation farther than the military anticipated. But government officials would deny and then minimize the dangers of radiation for years. Even after the hydogen bomb and the era of overkill capacity on hairtrigger alert, what Cousins called the “standardization of catastrophe” became almost patriotic, as the knowledge and the fears were turned inward, to be expressed mostly in low budget science fiction movies featuring giant ants and death-rays from space.

 Now [in 2006] it’s been some 15 years since the Soviet Union dissolved, and the threat of thermonuclear war apparently ended, or at least disappeared from national consciousness. Could it be that today some young policymakers again consider “nuclear” to be only a bigger, better bomb?

 Seymour Hersh suggests that civilians in the Bush administration are pushing the nuclear option for Iran, to the dismay of some of the military. He quotes a former senior intelligence official: “Nuclear planners go through extensive training and learn the technical details of damage and fallout—we’re talking about mushroom clouds, radiation, mass casualties, and contamination over years. This is not an underground nuclear test, where all you see is the earth raised a little bit. These politicians don’t have a clue, and whenever anybody tries to get it out”—remove the nuclear option—“they’re shouted down.”

According to various reports (beginning with Hersh but confirmed by several articles in the Washington Post and elsewhere), the use of tactical nuclear bombs is being considered in order to penetrate underground bunkers in Iran that may house nuclear research sites or command and control centers.

 In her strong denunciation of any imminent bombing of Iran, California Senator Dianne Feinstein also condemned the nuclear option: “As a matter of physics, there is no missile casing sufficiently strong to thrust deep enough into concrete or granite to prevent the spewing of radiation,” she wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “Nuclear ‘bunker busters’ would kill tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people across the Middle East.This would be a disastrous tragedy. First use of nuclear weapons by the United States should be unthinkable.”

 Senator Feinstein has been monitoring the Bush regime’s interest in new nuclear weapons for several years, so she also notes this: “There are some in this administration who have been pushing to make nuclear weapons more "usable." They see nuclear weapons as an extension of conventional weapons. This is pure folly.”

 Others are pointing out the nature of this “folly.” The National Academy of Science estimates that a nuclear bomb powerful enough to penetrate a bunker a thousand feet deep (1.2 megatons) would send 300,000 tons of radioactive debris some fifteen miles into the sky.

The Federation of American Scientists "the bombs would penetrate at most only a few metres into rock, causing no reduction in blast, fire, or fallout damage on the surface. The largest would have blown out a crater almost a thousand feet across and thrown a cloud of radioactive fallout tens of thousands of feet into the air where it would be blown hundreds of miles downwind."

 Physicians for Social Responsibility calculate that a nuclear attack on Iran of this kind would result in 3 million deaths within 48 hours. Radioactive fallout would reach into Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, exposing some 35 million, including some 20,000 Americans deployed in the war against terror. There would be more fatalities from radiation illnesses as medical and emergency systems fail.

 On its website, the Union of Concerned Scientists has an animation which shows the effect of nuclear bunker busters on the bunkers (a single bomb is unlikely to reach the target), the contents of bunkers hit (the bomb could spread biological agents kept in bunkers into the atmosphere) and the spread of blast and radiation to surrounding areas.

The first three atomic bombs of 1945 were all about the same size, between 15 and 20 kilotons. The first bomb, tested in the New Mexico desert, killed every living thing inside a mile. The Hiroshima bomb leveled a city and reduced human beings a half mile from the blast to lumps of charcoal. Five years later, radiation had more than doubled the death toll.

In Nagasaki, a boy playing in the river with friends dove to the bottom to retrieve an object. When he rose to the surface, his friends were blackened corpses, the city around him was in smoking ruins. Again, the number of deaths doubled from radiation.

 Though aspects of the U.S. nuclear arsenal are obscure, the nuclear bunker-buster bomb B61-11 (which cannot penetrate to 1,000 feet) has a variable yield of up to 340 kilotons. Though these would not explode high in the air as those bombs did, one such bomb would be the equivalent of 30 Nagasaki bombs, the last nuclear device to be used as a weapon. One of the airmen in the Nagasaki plane described the bright, fiery cloud shooting up with enormous speed as “a living thing, a new species of being” with “many grotesque masks grimacing at the earth.”

 For sixty years, humankind has held that monster at bay. Can we now allow it to be unleashed so casually? It seems likely that at the very least, the nation that unleashes it will quickly become the pariah and the shame of the world. It is time we think very seriously about the consequences of opening this ultimate Pandora’s box, and join with others to stop it. The world may have changed on 9-11. But it certainly changed even more radically in August 1945, and we must not forget it.

Radiating Lies (2006)

Another long piece that appeared on various community blogs in 2006, as news continued that the Bush administration was considering nuclear attacks on Iran. 

Secrets and lies have driven the history of the Bomb. We see this pattern repeated today, in an effort to make nuclear weapons seem no different from other explosives. But with continuing signs that the Bush administration may be heading for war on Iran, with reports of U.S. officials considering using nuclear weapons in Iran, these lies become even more dangerous.

 The most important secrets and lies concerned radiation, the distinguishing effect of the Bomb, beyond its sheer power. The effects of radiation were denied, dismissed and minimized for decades. Today they are not even mentioned.

 It is especially important to revisit this history because, according to the the Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nuclear earth penetrating weapon “would actually create more fallout than a ground-burst or airburst weapon, due to the increased distribution of radioactive debris from detonation at a shallow depth in soil or rock."

 Radiation and the history of denying it and confronting it is the subject of this essay. From its very beginnings, the atomic bomb has been mysterious. Even the physicists who lived together in Los Alamos to develop it did not know what they had invented. They didn’t know how powerful the first Bomb would be—they had a betting pool on the yield, and many seriously underestimated and overestimated the result. About half the scientists didn't think the device would explode at all. Enrico Fermi was taking bets on whether it would burn off the Earth's atmosphere.

 But most of the mystery was deliberate. The Bomb was developed in complete secrecy so as not to tip off the Nazis, who were believed to be working on their own Bomb project. Even after Germany’s defeat, the Bomb was kept secret from the remaining enemy of Japan, but also from America’s war allies.

 Then after the war, as the truth of what the Bomb’s effects became clear to scientists, the American military and Washington policymakers tried to keep some of those effects secret from U.S. citizens, even to the point of outright lies.

 The Bomb produces three effects: blast, heat and radioactivity (commonly called radiation.) The blast is immensely more powerful, and the heat is immensely more intense, than any other manmade device can produce. Together they resulted, in the Bomb’s first test, in killing every living thing within a mile, including insects.

A single Bomb each virtually leveled the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Human beings were vaporized. Nothing was left of some but their shadows burnt into concrete. Others were seared to a small pile of ashes. The remains of some were fused with metal doors and other objects. Those effects were immediately apparent. But it took some time for the effects of radiation to be understood, and even longer to be acknowledged.

 What We Know Now 

 The first humans exposed to an atomic bomb blast were those living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the summer of 1945. These included some American children of parents who were Japanese or of Japanese ancestry or origin living in the U.S. who were sent to internment camps. These children were sent to “safe” areas in Japan, such as Hiroshima. Some of those who survived the initial blast and heat but were heavily exposed to radiation began to develop radiation poisoning symptoms after about twenty-four hours: severe nausea, fever and vomiting.

In his 2005 book, “The Bomb: a Life”, scholar Gerard DeGroot writes: “The damage to cells was so widespread that recovery was impossible. Death occurred after about a week, before doctors had any inkling of what was wrong.” For others, symptoms didn’t begin for ten to fifteen days. They suffered from bloody diarrhea, “a loss of appetite, general malaise, persistent fever and hair loss.”

 The symptoms were delayed because gamma rays attack bone marrow where new blood cells are formed, and begin to produce defective cells. “In the worst cases of radiation poisoning, the gamma rays virtually destroy the entire bone marrow.. The cessation of red cell formation leads to progressive anemia. Deficiency of platelet formation causes thin blood to hemorrhage into the skin and the retina of the eye, and sometimes into the intestines and kidneys.

The fall in the number of white cells lowers the victim’s resistance to infections. When infections occurred among Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims, it usually spread from the mouth and was accompanied by gangrene of the lips, tongue and throat. Patients often emitted a terrible smell---they had effectively started to decay from the inside.”[pages 107-08]

 Those who escape this severe radiation poisoning, who may be farther from the blast, will not know for years, and perhaps will never know, the extent of the damage caused by radiation. “Ionizing radiation released in a nuclear explosion passes through the skin without causing external damage. It interacts immediately with tissues within the body, causing an irregular pattern of cell damage. ”

 Those who survive the attack on high turnover tissues, such as those involved in blood formation, may suffer effects on tissues with slower turnover, in the brain, liver or thyroid gland. In these, “…the effects of radiation damage may not become apparent for months or years, and can eventually manifest themselves as cancers.”

 Then there is danger to the unborn. Damaged or destroyed cells in a fetus may impair the development of organs and parts of the body. “Radiation can also damage DNA in the reproductive system, causing mutation in future generations. While scientists once thought that a ‘safe’ level of exposure existed, current medical opinion olds that there is no threshold dose below which an effect is not produced.”

 These effects were caused by the Bomb dropped on Hiroshima (approximately 20 kilotons) and Nagasaki (about 15 kilotons.) The nuclear bunker-busters that could be used in Iran may have a yield up to 10 kilotons, but most believe the yield goes up to 340 kilotons, more than 22 times more powerful than the Bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. More than half of those who died from the effects of that Bomb within the first five years after it was dropped, and more than two-thirds of those who died within five years after Nagasaki, had survived the blast and fire.

 A Generation of Lies 

 Although radioactive fallout from the first Bomb test in 1945 contaminated cattle, the effects were kept secret, along with everything else about the test. But even after the war, the secrecy continued. In “Bombs in the Backyard”, a self-described balanced account of nuclear testing, A. Costandina Titus writes that “Even Congress has been denied access to information.”

General Leslie Groves had ridden herd over the Manhattan Project that developed the Bomb, and he continued the policy of secrecy, which soon became a policy of denial. When the first reports of radiation sickness in Hiroshima surfaced, he dismissed them as “Japanese propaganda.” William Laurence, the only reporter permitted to follow the Bomb’s development, echoed the charge.

 Later, when radioactive fallout entered the news, American officials insisted that radiation exposure was painless to humans and test animals. General Groves testified to Congress that radiation poisoning was "a very pleasant way to die."

 Few precautions were taken for service personnel involved in the first postwar Bomb tests in the South Pacific in 1946, nor for many subsequent tests there and in Nevada. When military personnel and others exposed to test fallout either deliberately or accidentally later became ill, the government refused to consider that the nuclear explosions were related or responsible, and they maintained this heartless lie for decades.

 But one of the doctors involved in monitoring radiation and physical effects from those 1946 tests would be among the first to sound a public alarm. David Bradley’s book, “No Place to Hide”, was published in 1948 and became an immediate best seller. He later revised it to include further information as well as medical studies from later atomic and hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific. He reported for example that after 406 Pacific islanders were exposed to H-bomb fallout in 1954, nine children were born retarded, ten more with other abnormalities, and three were stillborn, including one reported to be "not recognizable as human."

 But the first writing to bring some of the reality of radiation to Americans was John Hershey’s Hiroshima, published in the New Yorker in August 1946, and soon after as a best-selling book. The stories of six Hiroshima survivors ended with riveting accounts of the ongoing effects of radiation.

This was the occasion for more stories (and more denials) about the effects of radioactivity. Still, Bomb testing went on, as necessary to the national defense, particularly when the Soviet Union unexpectedly exploded their first atomic Bomb in 1951. The U.S. returned to exploding atomic Bombs within its borders that same year, and radiation from a Nevada test was detected in the snow that fell on Rochester, New York.

 By early 1953, there had been 20 tests in Nevada. A seven year old boy 70 miles from Ground Zero in Nevada who died of leukemia “became possibly the first baby boom casualty of the atomic age.” (Great Expectations by Landon Y. Jones, p59.)


 The undercurrent of news about radiation’s effects continued throughout the 1950s, as the U.S. and Soviet Union exploded hundreds of atomic bombs, including hydrogen bombs (which some say are to atom bombs what atom bombs are to conventional explosives.) Testing and its effects became a campaign issue in the 1956 presidential election. Strontium 90, a radioactive isotope that lodges in bones and causes cancer, was discovered in cow’s milk across America. Still, the official word was there was nothing to worry about.

 The likelihood (since proven) that U.S. nuclear secrets were passed to the Russians, added fuel to what became McCarthyism in the 1950s. Now dissent concerning the Bomb could be criminal treason as well as unpatriotic. So much of the fear Americans had about nuclear radiation and the Bomb itself was driven underground, into the collective unconscious, and to the popular expression of that unconscious: the movies.

 Monsters created or unleashed by nuclear explosions became the decade’s B-movie cliché. But one of the first remained one of the best: “Them!” released in 1954. The film is fascinating today partly because several relatively unknown actors became stars, mostly in the new medium of television: James Arness in “Gunsmoke,” James Whitmore in “The Law and Mr. Jones,” Leonard Nimoy (with a very small part) in “Star Trek,” and Fess Parker, a young actor Walt Disney saw in this movie and cast as Davy Crockett, the first TV hero to be a national phenomenon.

But the fact that these actors were unknowns in 1954 led credibility to the story, which was mostly a step by step investigation into a horrific phenomenon---radiation from atomic testing mutated a colony of ordinary ants into a race of giant ants, killing, breeding and preparing to swarm on Los Angeles and other cities, where they could begin their conquest of humanity.

 The movie dealt with a number of themes related to the Cold War and the Bomb, but it was remarkably forthright about the source of the fears it symbolized. "If these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb tests in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?" asks James Arness, the FBI man of action. "I don't know," says the beautiful woman scientist. "Nobody knows," says her father, the elder scientist. "When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door into a new world. What we eventually find in that new world nobody can predict."

 There would be many more Bomb-themed films (including the original Japanese version of Godzilla, which dealt more forthrightly with Bomb themes than the version Americans saw. The original will be available on DVD for the first time in September.)

 In his book, “Apocalypse Movies”, Kim Newman makes the valuable point that the B movie divisions of major studios tended to glorify the military in their Bomb-theme movies, while independent films were more questioning, and revealed more of the real horror. They also tended to extend mutations to human beings, as in “The Incredible Shrinking Man.”

 But as these eruptions from the unconscious became formulaic “bug-eyed monster” movies, a few filmmakers began to deal openly with the effects of nuclear war. The most influential of the 1950s, and the one that dealt most directly with mass death by radioactive fallout as the ultimate outcome of nuclear war, was Stanley Kramer’s “On the Beach,” starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire. Set in Australia after the U.S. and the Soviet Union have destroyed each other, the characters learn they are doomed from the fallout heading their way.

 There are no explosions, no monsters, no gruesome deaths. Yet Nobel Laureate and anti-Bomb activist Linus Pauling said, “It may be that some years from now can look back and say that ‘On the Beach’ is the movie that saved the world.”

 Throughout the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, there were films and TV movies that tried to bring the horror into public consciousness. “The War Game” by Peter Watkin, a docudrama about the effects of a nuclear war in one English village, was made for BBC-TV in 1965 but the BBC refused to show it until 1985. It was seen in art houses in the U.S. and elsewhere as a feature in the 60s and 70s.

Also on British TV in the 1980s was “Threads,” which carried the effects of radiation past one generation. While a survivor society struggles in a burnt-out and irradiated world, a 12 year old giving birth screams at the sight of her deformed stillborn baby. It was a harrowing ending to a truly horrifying film.

There were two prominent TV films in the U.S in the 80s, which also showed survivors of nuclear war struggling valiantly and hopelessly. The better known was The Day After” directed by Nicholas Meyer, starring Jason Robards and JoBeth Williams. Set in Lawrence, Kansas, it centers on a doctor (Robards) who deals with an impossible emergency over days and weeks as he and everyone else gradually succumbs to radiation poisoning. The TV movie ends with the warning that as fatalistic as the story seemed, a full-scale nuclear war would have far worse effects. “The Day After” had an effect on American consciousness in the 1980s similar to “On the Beach” in the late 1950s. “

 But another TV film brought the effects home. “Testament” by Lynne Littman, starring Jane Alexander, followed events in an isolated northern California town. Without graphic images, it simply shows a family and a town living to the end of the world, as radiation poisons everyone and everything. Radiation from hundreds of thermonuclear bombs is enough to destroy civilization. But radiation from a single Bomb of relatively low yield killed hundreds of thousands in Japan. It could happen in Iran and perhaps the surrounding region, with some dying in days, some in weeks, and some in years or even decades. Yet no one is talking about this. It is time to start.

Hiroshima: The Birth of Nuclear Warfare

This piece appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

On July 16, 1945, the cruiser Indianapolis sailed from Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco, carrying one 15-foot crate. Inside were the components for the first atomic bomb destined to be dropped on a city.

It was being shipped to Tinian Island in the western Pacific, and its final destination a few weeks later would be Hiroshima. It left San Francisco just four hours after the first successful atomic bomb test in history, in the New Mexico desert.

Sixty years is a long time to keep even such an immense memory alive, but several books published recently bring these events into sharper focus than ever before. Several are biographies of key figures like Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, but one is billed as a biography of the bomb itself. "The Bomb: A Life" by Gerard DeGroot (Harvard University Press), professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, benefits from newly available records, especially concerning the Soviet nuclear program. But mostly it is a skillfully condensed narrative of the nuclear era, fascinating in the selection of details and riveting in its revelations of how possessing nuclear weapons changed those involved, and changed America.

 On the day of that first test in July 1945, no one knew what would happen. About half the scientists didn't think the device would explode at all. Enrico Fermi was taking bets that it would burn off the Earth's atmosphere. It did explode, with such brightness that a woman blind from birth traveling in a car some distance away saw it. "A colony on Mars, had such a thing existed, could have seen the flash," DeGroot writes. "All living things within a mile were killed, including all insects."

America was now in sole possession of the most powerful weapon in history. The first effect of the bomb was in Potsdam, Germany, where President Harry Truman was conferring with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, premier of the Soviet Union, then an ally in the war against Japan. After Truman received the news of the successful test, he was "a changed man" and "generally bossed the whole meeting," according to Churchill.

That the second bomb left San Francisco on the day the first was tested suggests the momentum to use it. Whether dropping the bomb was necessary to secure Japan's surrender before an invasion became necessary is still being debated. DeGroot believes that Japan was looking for a way to surrender in June and July.

But there were other considerations, mostly to do with demonstrating American power, especially to the Soviet Union. Using the bomb quickly became a test of patriotism. "For most Manhattan Project scientists the bomb was a deterrent, not a weapon," DeGroot writes.

Szilard and Einstein
Physicist Leo Szilard had done as much as anyone to try to persuade FDR to develop the bomb because Germany was doing so. But on the day after that first test, he sent government officials a petition signed by 69 project scientists arguing that to use the bomb would ignite a dangerous arms race and damage America's postwar moral position, especially its ability to bring "the unloosed forces of destruction under control."

The petition was ignored, and Gen. Leslie Groves, the senior military official in charge of the project, began making a case that Szilard was a security risk. It's a pattern that would be repeated often.

General Groves and Manhattan Project scientists look
at what was left after the first atomic test in July 1945
DeGroot places the decision to drop the bomb on Japan in the context of the brutalization that occurred during the long years of World War II, with an unprecedented scope of savagery on both sides. The bombing of civilians and cities, morally unthinkable in the West before the war, became a major feature of it by its final years, long past the time many military targets were left. Gen. Groves, he writes, was worried that Japan might surrender before the bomb could be dropped.

Hiroshima was selected as the primary target because it had no allied POW camps. However, there were nearly 5,000 American children in the city -- "mainly children sent to Japan after their parents, U.S. citizens of Japanese origin, had been interred." It seems likely some of those children were from San Francisco.

The nuclear era began with the secrecy of the Manhattan Project, which is perhaps partly why it was accompanied throughout its history by lies and denial. They began with Hiroshima. As many as 75,000 people died in the first blast and fire. But in five years the death toll would reach 200,000 because of what the U.S. government denied existed: lethal radiation.

Even after the hydrogen bomb was developed in the 1950s (so powerful that the first test vaporized an island and created a mile wide crater 175 feet deep), the untruths continued. In 1954, Dr. David Bradley reported on 406 Pacific islanders exposed to H-bomb fallout: nine children were born retarded, 10 more with other abnormalities, and three were stillborn, including one reported to be "not recognizable as human." Such information was denied or routinely suppressed through all the years of testing, even on U.S. soil. Groves even told Congress that death from radiation was "very pleasant."

Even after the war, criticizing the bomb in any way became a threat to national security, an act of disloyalty that only helped the communist enemy. And so people were silent and compliant, and streamed into air-conditioned theatres to see movies about monsters created by atomic radiation.

 This extreme weapon prompted extreme and contrary emotions, often within the same people. Some of the same Los Alamos scientists who cheered madly at the first news of Hiroshima were later shell-shocked with regret. Gen. Omar Bradley called his contemporaries "nuclear giants and ethical infants." Yet he pushed for developing the hydrogen bomb.

This peculiar combination of denial plus the immense power of thousands of bombs contributed to an era of deadly absurdities: the age of Dr. Strangelove. Yet reality was not so different, right down to the preposterously appropriate names: the head of the Strategic Air Command, Gen. Tommy Power, gave his philosophy of nuclear war in 1960: "At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!"

The warp in American political life created by the bomb might be summarized in two statements. "In order to make the country bear the burden," said President Dwight Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, referring to the Cold War arms race, "we have to create an emotional atmosphere akin to a wartime psychology. We must create the idea of a threat from without."

The second is more famous, but perhaps its connection to the bomb and its effect on America has been forgotten: Eisenhower's farewell address. "We have been compelled to create a permanent arms industry of vast proportions," he said. "We must not fail to comprehend its vast implications. ... We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."