Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The H-Bomb and the Jesus Rock


It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the western hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response... – John F. Kennedy: Address on the Cuban Crisis October 22, 1962

When I first chanced upon this novel I imagined it was going to be one of those books like When I was Five I Killed Myself or Naïve. Super, a little gem that those in the know were raving about but had somehow managed to escape wider exposure. And I was right but here’s the thing: no one seems to have been raving about this book and for the life of me I don’t understand why. Three reviews on Amazon (two five-stars and a four) and a third five-star review on Goodreads and that looked like it. No newspapers. No blogs. No nothin’. I did, finally, discover an interview with the author here and a short review on but that really was it. And I think that’s a crying shame because this is a lovely book. It reminded me of Peanuts and who doesn’t like Peanuts?

The events in the book take place on Saturday, October 27, 1962, the last (and darkest) day of the Cuban missile crisis. Tense negotiations had been taking place for some time but since several Soviet vessels attempted to run the blockade tensions had increased to the point that orders had been sent out to US Navy ships to fire warning shots and then open fire. On this Saturday a U-2 plane was shot down by a Soviet missile crew, an action that could easily have resulted in immediate retaliation from the Kennedy crisis cabinet. Americans were sitting on their porches with radios pressed to their ears or could be found queuing up outside confessionals wanting to make their peace before the inevitable end. Thoughts about the atomic bomb or fallout rose from 27 percent in the spring of 1962 to 65 percent during the crisis. Schools were having twice daily duck and cover drills as recorded by one of the children in the novel:

        Sister Veronica’s had us doing duck-and-cover drills twice a day.
        She’ll be going on about something, the natural resources of Brazil or something, then all of a sudden, “Down, children, down,” and we have to get out of our seats and down on our knees facing away from the windows, foreheads on the floor, hands behind our necks. She never tells us if it’s real or not, if we’re all going to die now or not. This kid in front of me, Jerome Winslow, starts whimpering every single time. I always whisper to God a quick “Sorry, sorry,” in case this is really it.
        Once while I was down there I snuck a peek at Sister to see what she was doing, and there she was, down on the floor like the rest of us. That scared me a little, I have to admit, seeing this nun on the floor.

LucyIt’s a grim time. Unless you’re a kid who takes these things with a pinch of salt which entrepreneurial Toby does. He’s out in front of his house, business as usual, not unlike Lucy offering psychiatric help for 5¢. Toby Tyler’s line of business is not advice on how to cope with the current crisis; it’s baseball cards:

        It was warm out this morning so I was sitting on the top step of the front porch with my boxes of cards, open for business, trade or buy, a tall stack of toast and jam on a plate beside me.
        Mom made the jam herself, with actual strawberries.
        She still wasn’t back from Mass. She probably lit some candles afterwards in front of Mary and said a rosary. Plus it takes her a while to walk from there. It’s only a couple of blocks but it takes her quite a while.
        Poor thing.

Toby, as you’ve probably gathered, has been brought up a Catholic. The other two players in this little drama are Ralph and Lou (short for Louisa). Roger’s ten and his sister is eight and their relationship is not dissimilar to that of Charlie and Sally Brown: she whines; he’s lousy at baseball. They’re more devout than Toby despite that they—or perhaps because—they come from a poorer part of town. Toby and his mum aren’t exactly rolling in it but following the death of his dad they are comfortably off:

        We’re not rich, me and Mom, but my father was a big enough bigshot with Mutual of Omaha so we’re pretty well set because of him dying. But what I would like, I would like to be rich, and not just rich but filthy rich. Or anyway rich enough to have a staff. That’s my dream, to have servants—a chef, a maid, and a butler.
        Especially a butler:
        —You rang, sir?
        —Change the channel, will you?
        —As you wish.
        —And bring me some more of those Peeps, just the heads.
        —Very good, sir.

I’m not sure you’d call Lucy snobby but she is bossy and crabby and Toby’s those too. He’s also one thing Lucy isn’t—apart from not being a girl—he’s overweight:

        Here’s something funny, though. I’ve got all these baseball cards, seven shoeboxes full, and I don’t even like baseball. I don’t like any sports. That’s one of the reasons I’m so fat. I’m only thirteen, eighth grade, and I’m already twice the size of anyone around, except my mom.
        She’s truly huge.

He even suggests setting up a tent in their backyard, “twenty-five cents to step inside and guess the Fat Lady’s weight”. Of course he’d share the profits 50:50. She is not amused.

Okay, so I’ve pretty much covered Toby. Ralph and Lou Cavaletto are completely different. Their dad’s a janitor and when they get up there’re only two slices of bread in the house and they have to fend for themselves—no tall stack of toast and jam for them—but they’re content with their lot and look as if they genuinely care for each other. This morning Lou wants to go to the vacant lot to look for empties, as Ralph recalls:

        I promised her the other day we’d go look for empties on Saturday and today was Saturday and she didn’t forget. She never does.
         “After I get back,” I told her. “I’m gonna go to the park for a while—don’t start whining—just for a while. Then I’ll come back and we’ll go.”
         “Soon as I get back.”
         “But when, Ralph?”
         “Quit whining.”
         “Just tell me.”
         “After Garfield Goose. By the end of it.”
        I promised. Then I told her about that last piece of bread I left in the toaster. I told her she’d better go eat it before I did.

So Ralph heads off to the park:

Charlie Brown        It was nice out for being practically Halloween, plenty warm enough for baseball, so I brought my glove and wore my Sox cap, and sure enough a bunch of guys were already in a game. They let me in, out in right field.
        I like baseball. It’s one of my favourite things. I wouldn’t mind being a pro when I’m old enough, you know? Playing baseball for money? That would be perfect. Right now I’m ten so I should be in Little League this year, except we didn’t have the money, and anyway I didn’t really want to join. They got uniforms and coaches and umpires and dugouts and chalk lines and brand new white balls and people in the stands—I’d be way too nervous. I’d be so afraid of making a bad play it wouldn’t be any fun.
        But I like it at the park.

Needless to say the game does not go the way he imagines it might in his head but he dutifully returns home—he is a good big brother—collects his sister and they head off to the vacant lot dragging their wagon behind them. The return on an empty is 2¢ by the way. On their way they pass Toby’s house and, since it’s hot and he doesn’t like sweating if he can avoid it, he has a proposition for them:

        He offered us a nickel if we wagoned him there and back. He said he wanted to get some baseball cards at Morgan’s—that’s the drug store just past the vacant lot—and if we took him in the wagon there and back he’d give us five cents.
         “Each?” I said.
        He asked me if I was out of my mind.         I started leaving.
         “All right, all right,” he said.
        I stopped. “All right what?”
         “A dime.”

A dime was worth five bottles immediately so it made good business sense to agree; they may not have Toby’s business acumen but they know a good deal when they see one. Well it would’ve been a good dead if a) he hadn’t been quite so fat and b) they hadn’t eaten his toast while he was in the house putting on his shoes which Toby then charged them a dime for. Anyway, long story short, huffing and puffing they heave their way to the shop, Toby gets his cards and on the way back they pause at the vacant lot where he permits Ralph and Lou a few minutes to forage for bottles but that’s not what Lou turns up:

        I stubbed my foot. Fatso hollered and I looked up and stubbed my foot on something and almost fell.
        It was a rock. I was going to kick it for tripping me. I was mad. We had to wagon him all the way back now and I was going to kick the rock—but it was looking at me. It had like an eye and it was looking at me out of it. Plus I think it told me, “Don’t, Lou.” Or maybe not, maybe it didn’t speak, but it was looking at me, I know that.
        So I picked it up.
        Now it was looking at me out of two eyes.
        And that wasn’t all...that wasn’t all...

It’s a rock caked in dirt but the image on the thing looks like Jesus. Ralph realises this could be a Holy Object; they’d been shown a film about Our Lady of Fátima the previous Thursday where an angel had apparently appeared to three shepherd children. Toby sees dollar signs. And that’s as much as I’m going to tell you.

The article had a few good points to make. It said the book explored such themes as:

  • How children deal with fear, especially during time of war
  • The notion that all wars eventually turn into "holy wars"
  • How children create their own narratives reflecting the adult world – merging fantasy with real-life

These are good points to keep in mind when reading this. Because we have a book narrated by children it’s sometimes easy to shrug off their insights or to imagine this is an adult putting words into his creations’ mouths but I completely accepted the perspectives offered by the three narrators—the book is presented in short chapters alternating in perspective from one kid to the next—and believed them unlike most of the characters in Peanuts who are frankly a bit too wise for their ages. quotes the author as saying:

Through the story, I attempt to show the way in which a profound national crisis gets interpreted, played out, and ‘resolved' by children. It's important that we understand the way fear operates in children, the way they absorb, and respond to a moment of national emergency as well as what narratives they use to ‘resolve' the issue, the adult ideas they draw on, and how easily they are manipulated into a particular interpretation of the crisis.

And in his interview he adds:

The H-Bomb and the Jesus Rock came out of a whole big bag of things from my grade school years—the fear of sudden nuclear annihilation, the equation of the Red Scare with the Red Devil, coldblooded nuns, a fat kid in the neighbourhood with a vast collection of baseball cards and a perfect capitalist mentality, this letter the pope was supposed to open which the saintly little shepherd children of Fatima got from Mary, which would predict the fate of the world, and this complete belief we had in signs, in holy objects, for instance a rock that looked like Jesus, and the power of such a God-placed thing, and of course looking for empty pop bottles to get the two-cent refund—all of this was mixed together, so writing the book became a matter of separating all this stuff into elements that could carry a story along. I had a lot of trouble coming up with a title. I usually have one pretty early on, but I didn’t know what to call this one. I finally just jammed the two major elements of the story together.

duck and coverManderino is clearly drawing on personal experiences. I was three when all this was happening but I can still relate strongly to it. I didn’t grow up with Duck and Cover; in my day it was Protect and Survive. We watched films like Threads and The Day After which, if Wikipedia is to be believed, “is currently the highest-rated television film in history” and we told jokes about what we’d do when the four-minute warning came. Of course the cold war’s over but just look at the recent surge in dystopian and post-holocaust fiction. The fear never went away, not really. Plus I had a religious upbringing, which I’ve never recovered from, and so I strongly related to how people reacted in the book; I lived in fear of—or at least in expectation of—Armageddon every day of my childhood; I remember when there was a big explosion at ICI—I was sitting in English at the time—and for a second or two I genuinely wondered if this was it, the end of the world.

Normally I would’ve posted this review on Goodreads and got on with the next book—I’m never short of books to review here—but I really was disappointed by the lack of publicity for this book, not that I imagine this article will open the floodgates but, seriously, you can pick up the book for pennies now on Amazon. I highly recommend it. And when did you last hear me say that about any book?


John ManderinoJohn Manderino lives in Maine with his wife Marie, where he teaches college writing and provides coaching and editing services to other writers. One of his students describes him as, “This guy is one ****ing cool dude. He's very dry and entertaining. Great teacher.” He’s published three novels, a collection of short stories and a memoir with Academy Chicago. John has also written plays that have been performed at theatre festivals and other venues. A stage version of his memoir Crying at Movies was recently produced.


Jonathan Chant said...

Cool review. I'm going to add this one to my reading list. The bottle collecting reminds me of Richard Brautigan, although I can't remember which story/book it was in. And it's great to see Naive Super get a mention. A gem of a book. Thanks Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

I read a lot of books, Jonathan. I’ve finished over a hundred so far this year. But very few of them have really excited me. Many have been a chore to get through, even the short ones and a lot of the books I read are short. But I connected with this one right away and I really don’t understand why people haven’t picked up on it. So I do recommend you locate a copy. It’s right down your street.

The bottle collecting you’re thinking of is from So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away and it was beer bottles.

I did read a second novel by Erland Loe. You can read my review of it it’s here.

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