James Thackara
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Ahab's Daughter

America's Children

The Boston Globe Review

The Boston Globe Richard Dyer June 7, 2001 (excerpt)

Overlook Press, which overcame the obstacles to editing and publishing “The Book of Kings”, has now produced the first US edition of Thackara’s debut novel, “America’s Children”, originally issued in England in 1984. Presumably, Thackara’s second novel “Ahab’s Daughter” will follow.

“America’s Children”, written 17 years after Thackara’s graduation from Harvard, is a novel about Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atomic bomb. At 330 pages, it is a more modest enterprise than its successor, but it is no less ambitious – Thackara could hardly have attacked a more major theme, or a more complex and controversial personality. The novel is flawed, but plenty good enough to make this reader eager to tackle “The Book of Kings” again.

In a brief author’s note, Thackara calls “America’s Children” a “chronicle novel...the narrative is a poetic invention, while the details of events are widely known.”

As far as details of events are concerned, Thackara’s research has been careful. These people and what they said and did have been extremely well documented, although Richard Rhodes’ prize-winning “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” and its sequel, “Dark Sun”, were not available to Thackara because they hadn’t been published yet. But readers of those books will appreciate how often Thackara has quoted Oppenheimer and his associates accurately as a foundation for his own purpose, to fill in the blanks, to speculate about what can never be known.

There is a narrative element in “America’s Children”. We first see Oppenheimer as a young man in New Mexico, where his body and spirit feel a particularly strong connection to the forces of nature he is exploring with his mind. We see him with his younger brother Frank, also a physicist; with his girlfriend, the political activist (and Communist) Jean Tatlock; with his wife, the alcoholic Kitty; with the circle of exceptionally gifted students at Berkeley. “At first, as Oppy chalked up the sheet-music of factors, Sines and Cosines, they all felt the mad exhilaration of being up against the untouched, the absolute.”

We see General Groves recruit Oppenheimer to lead one of the most consequential military and scientific projects in history, and watch the efforts of others to recruit the physicist as a spy. (“Interrupted by the four loud raps on the attic’s security door, Doctor Oppenheimer smiled crookedly, thinking of Beethoven’s Fifth. Fate knocking at the door.”) We follow the building of Los Alamos, the great troubled adventure of developing the theoretic framework for the bomb and building it, the first test, then Hiroshima, and the seismic shift on moral awareness that using the bomb created.

Finally we see the great, tragic drama of America’s war hero brought low by postwar politics: after a secret hearing full of muddled thinking and betrayal, Oppenheimer was denied further security clearance. “America must not devour her children!” argued Oppenheimer’s lawyer, Lloyd Garrison, but that’s what America does, and the dance of death continues. The book ends with a brief summary of Oppenheimer’s last years as an antinuclear activist, and a touching glimpse of Oppenheimer and Einstein, drinking milkshakes together at Princeton.

Thackara narrates all this with a spacious, symbolic gravity that can sometimes weary the reader, although he leavens it with occasional flecks of humor as scientists tangle with political and military bureaucrats.

The tone and rhythm of the writing are most often biblical, mythical. Thackara uses narrative as a framework for meditation. For him the story is really a medieval morality play. The characters in these historical events are not rich and complex. Each, instead, is reduced to an essential – the literary scholar and translator Haakon Chevalier is the Faithful Friend; he introduces to Camus’ s “The Stranger”. Rival physicist Edward Teller becomes Envy; General Groves, Gluttony.

At the center of the warring forces is Oppenheimer, the most exceptional of Everymen, set apart from others by the lucidity of his intelligence and the quivering sensitivity of his conscience. “When Robert looked back down the intricate channels of the life he had written himself...instead of a consistent moral stream, they were broken in a mass of contradictions, vanity and inadequate ideology. And crowning the whole famous chaos of personalities and events with its vanity and its paradox, the Bomb.”

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