America's Children

Overview

The Book of Kings established James Thackara as a novelist of extraordinary range and vision, and became one of the publishing sensations of recent years. America's Children is James Thackara's first novel, written in 1984 and first published in the United States last year in hardcover. It tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose life is the perfect symbol of man's enlightened conquest of nature, his crisis of guilt, and his struggle for responsibility.

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Overview

The Book of Kings established James Thackara as a novelist of extraordinary range and vision, and became one of the publishing sensations of recent years. America's Children is James Thackara's first novel, written in 1984 and first published in the United States last year in hardcover. It tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose life is the perfect symbol of man's enlightened conquest of nature, his crisis of guilt, and his struggle for responsibility.

America's Children is a multi-layered story of Christian and Marxist values; of love of family and land; of invisible high-energy particles and Pentagon technocrats; of thrilling scientific discovery and the unspeakable reality of Hiroshima. A novel for our age, America's Children is a sublime and truly American story of the theft of atomic fire, the agonies of political and moral conscience, and the future of our planet in a nuclear world.

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Editorial Reviews

From The Critics
America's Children is also a first novel, but it is not James Thackara's debut in the United States. In 1999 his Book of Kings, a panoramic treatment of World War II, received wide, if mixed, attention after The New Yorker published an essay on Thackara's trials in getting his attempt at War and Peace published. Now Overlook Press is also releasing America's Children, originally published in 1984 in Great Britain.

Since then much has been written about the novel's protagonist, Robert Oppenheimer, including Richard Rhodes' prize-winning book The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Thackara's fictionalizing contributes a highly charged, if sometimes eccentric, interpretation of Oppenheimer's life.

America's Children begins in the West with a section called "The Desert," the mesa at Los Alamos where the young New York-born physicist went in 1929 to recover from tuberculosis. A leftist altruist in the 1930s, Oppenheimer wanted to save lives when the war began— American lives and those in concentration camps. He continues his atomic research at Berkeley, collaborates with such European emigre scientists as Edward Teller and is tapped to head the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer chooses Los Alamos as the project's primary site not only for its personal associations, but because he believes in the mythical West, that space free of human pettiness, a pure place for his utopian community of scientific pioneers. When Oppenheimer sees the atomic bomb's power at Trinity Test Site in 1945, he begins to doubt his work and the West where it took place. After the bomb is dropped on Japan, he agonizes over his responsibility and uses hisstatus to argue against further thermonuclear research. He loses that argument to Teller, and the Cold War arms race accelerates toward Mutual Assured Destruction. During the Red Scare of the 1950s, politicians find Oppenheimer's fellow-traveler past and his present moral scruples dangerous, and he is humiliated by having his security clearance lifted.

The story of Oppenheimer's life is dramatic in both its rise and fall. Thackara knows it well: the scientist's humanistic longings and romantic entanglements, his physicist friends and enemies, the generals and politicians who cared nothing for the pure science breakthroughs at Los Alamos.

But when Thackara attempts to make a man seduced by the blank slate of the West into Western Man—the guilty apex of Western Civilization—the author too often inflates with hyperbolic rhetoric the already remarkable events of Oppenheimer's life. Thackara thus does to his novel what the McCarthyites did to Oppenheimer, smearing his reality with loaded language.

It will take an Oppenheimer scholar to calculate just how much of Thackara's version is true, how much romanticized. But given Thackara's grandiose intentions, I doubt the author was overly concerned with facts. For Thackara, "Oppy" is a fabled hero, a scientific Paul Bunyan, that the brooding author can turn into tragedy. But for all its high seriousness, America's Children treats American readers like kids around a campfire, possibly impressed by Thackara's pretentious words, perhaps easily frightened by his apocalyptic bluster. As if only Thackara—not even Oppenheimer!—was aware of thermonuclear horror, that fire without a camp in the desert of the real.
—Tom LeClair

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a notable New Yorker article three years ago, James Thackara was lauded as an unknown American genius. Last year, his supposedly unpublishable masterpiece, The Book of Kings, was published. Belatedly, American readers can now read his first novel, releasesd years ago in Britain, which reconstructs the rise and fall of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Thackara's Oppenheimer is a man who seems, unconsciously, to cast a spell on those about him: "everyone loves him." In the late '30s, he is teaching physics at Berkeley and demonstrating that he is one of the few American peers of the European physicists. Politically a leftist, he is surrounded by Communist Party activists and fellow travelers. However, when war comes, right-wing Col. Leslie Groves, the military head of the atom bomb project, makes Oppenheimer its head scientist. The best part of the novel links the "tremendous vistas" of the New Mexican landscape with the drama of making the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. The cracks in Oppenheimer's image are even then appearing, as he is secretly investigated as a security risk. The last third of the book portrays his long, torturous descent into the public humiliation of being denied security clearance by the Atom Commission. Thackara's Oppenheimer is ultimately a flawed hero, confusing his good intentions with real goodness--much like the country on behalf of which he built the bomb. Lyrical--at times breathlessly so--and grandiloquent, Thackara's first effort is redeemed by its genuine sincerity and passion. (Mar. 15) Forecast: The failure of The Book of Kings to live up to its hype means this book will mostly be received as a curiosity, and likely will achieve only modest sales. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This is Thackara's 1984 "chronicle novel" of J. Robert Oppenheimer, his involvement in the development of the atomic bomb, the beginnings of the Cold War, and the ensuing weapons escalation with the dawn of the hydrogen bomb. Available domestically for the first time after the release of Thackara's 1999 epic The Book of Kings made a largely ignored splash despite the ballyhoo, America's Children compares favorably with its economy of storytelling and limited scope, which, being a personal story of Oppenheimer's hollow victories and his eventual victimization at the hands of anti-Communist forces, works to its advantage. Unfortunately, 17 years after its initial debut, the book now stands in the shadow of Richard Rhodes's two excellent nonfiction works, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (LJ 8/95) and Dark Sun (LJ 3/1/87. o.p.), which cover the same time period, quote actual participants, and create an understanding that Thackara's poetics and imagined conversations don't quite capture as well. Not a necessary purchase. Marc Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., PA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781585672479
  • Publisher: Overlook Press, The
  • Publication date: 4/3/2002
  • Edition description: REISSUE
  • Pages: 330
  • Product dimensions: 5.62 (w) x 8.74 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

James Thackara was born in California and educated in Buenos Aires, Provence, California, Rome, Switzerland, and New England, graduating from Harvard in 1967. He is the author of three novels: America's Children, Ahab's Daughter, and The Book of Kings.
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Read an Excerpt



Chapter One

Four eggs crackled on the wood stove. In the log kitchen at Pero Caliente there was a smell of breakfast. Frank Oppenheimer leaned back by the open door with his flute. Over the stack of books he could see the grass slopes, the perimeter of spruces and the corral. As his eyes followed the figure among the horses, he was glad the others had left, even that Jackie had stayed home. Frank blew in the mouthpiece. In the early morning just the tone sounded good.

    `Hey, Rob!'

    Down in the corral his brother waved and swung the saddle on to the fence rail. Frank sat down and began playing the allegro vivace. Presently Robert stood moodily in the door, powdered with dust. `You should be doing that full time,' he said.

    `Thanks. But would you explain something to me?'

    `I didn't mean giving up physics.' Robert looked at the frying pan appraisingly.

    `There are five horses down there,' Frank went on, `and you have to ride the unbroken one. It makes me mad.'

    `But think what the saddle must mean to him.'

    `Why not quantize it and see?' Frank said.

    `We'll have no quantizing down here.' Robert slipped the eggs on two tin plates and walked his shuffling uneven walk out into the sun. Frank padded after him over the pine needles with the coffee tin. Feeling his brother brooding so early in the morning, Frank experienced a little wave of anxiety. He preferred Robbie telling him how to run his life.

    The snow on the Sangres looked very closeover the forest hills. The air was spiced with pine. Over the meadows the dawn shadows were warming.

    `Speaking of quantizing, Frank,' Robert went on without picking up his fork. `Have you ever asked yourself what our chums from the labs think seeing us play around with horses?'

    Robert looked across the plates at his younger brother, eyebrows knit. He was thinking of his intense emotion yesterday on the Mesa. Robert needed Frank to guess it. Looking up at him between bites, Frank thought it was marriage and he was moved.

    `Robbie? How do you feel about it?' Frank said quietly.

    `Ah, that.' Embarrassed at their misunderstanding, Robert began his eggs. `Well, a lot better than Levin about to marry his Kitty. Did it occur to you,' Robert said. `A Pittsburgh political romantic and biologist, born in Germany? What could be closer to our family?'

    `And a vamp too.' Frank was silent, wondering about princesses, then about all the books they used to read together here. `Anna Karenina, now there was a book! Still it's been good this time. I don't want to go back West.'

    `Or New York?' Robert shrugged. `Frank, tell me. How did you ever listen to that garbage about how wonderful your brother was?'

    `To New York, the coast, anywhere!' Frank waved it away.

    `I guess we feel the same about New York,' said Robert. `You know, Papa's chauffeurs and cooks, Mama's goodness.'

    `You outgrew it.' Frank shook his woolly head. `I guess there's a lot more to this country. I'll tell you what it was for me, Robbie. You never went to that rally in Madison Square Garden, for the Brigade.'

    The two skinny brothers faced each other, leaning on the picnic table above the clearing.

    `No pasaran!' Robert spoke the Republican oath, rolling the r's and hardening the a's. `You knew friends of Kitty's arranged that rally?'

    `She's pretty far from it now.'

    `The farther the better.' Robert's eyes veiled. `If I start thinking about what's going on back in France, I'll boil over.'

    `Kitty won't let you stick to that.'

    `Am I so easily influenced?'

    `It's a family trait.'

    Robert put down his fork. The shadow from the tree-tops had left his face.

    `When I think of pogroms, Frank,' Robert said so quietly that even in the morning hush Frank barely heard it, `it makes me think of bombs!'

    `No pasaran, eh?' Frank shook his head. `Anyway, bombs won't solve any more than rallies do.'

    Robert pushed his plate on the table and looked up. `It all seems pretty unreal from out here.'

    Frank changed the subject. `You didn't tell me how Edith was yesterday.'

    `The poetess and her Indian chief.' Robert smiled. `Obscure but splendid.'

    `What's her obscurity got to do with it?' Frank said.

    `It's what I meant about horses.'

    `You were a terrific host!' Frank objected.

    `I'm tired of being the host.' Robert took out his pipe. `Segre and Bethe can be the hosts ... I'll do their work.'

    `Robbie, you'll have your moment,' Frank said gently.

    `I'm thirty-six, Frank.'

    The brothers sat a while in the silence. `Do you know who was at this table yesterday?'

    Frank shrugged. `Who?'

    `Destiny, fate knocking at the door,' Robert said.

    `What a door. You know where their work could lead.'

    `Galileo, Frank? The truth is the truth.'

    `A vacation's a vacation. Robbie, you always loved it here.'

    His handsome brother looked across with a crooked smile. `I'm sorry Frank. I'm spoiling it for you.'

    `For yourself,' Frank grinned. `You'll need your strength.'

    `She makes things work for me, Frank. Jean never did,' Robert squinted up at the sun. `You know I feel the same about here,' he went on. `Only there's never been a moment like now. Not in all history.'

    `Famous last words. I'll settle for this.'

    `I want to settle for it too. Only my mind keeps slipping off.' Robert frowned nervously. `I want to love what we've got, but it scares me. What if there's nothing else? Never anything else?'

    `But that's the beauty of it!' Frank burst out.

    `That's it, Frank!' Robert laughed happily. He slapped the table. `You've solved it ... that's the solution.'

    While they talked, a wintry film had spread on the sky. Across the river the rich gold dawn had dulled on the slopes, the red flesh of the desert darkened.

    Robert stood up, still filling the pipe. `You're right, the labs are not so wonderful,' he said. `Most of the crew are quite ignorant. Imagine grown men who blush like bobbysoxers at words like poetry, or love. Thank heaven for a few friends like Haakon Chevalier. Or students like Serber, Lomanitz, Neddermeyer.'

    `They think you're some genius,' Frank said.

    `Listen, Frank ...'

    Robert was in a new mood. Walking up the knoll, he turned and squinted over Frank's head, down the slopes into the Albuquerque desert. `Without Bach or Buddha, Frank, mesons and quanta and isotopes are no more than mechanics.' Robert was excited. `I don't need hero worship. Just to feel I'm running more than a garage full of jealous grease-monkeys and electricians. And you're right.' He waved his pipe around the horizon. `Beside this, those cities were a floating over the surface. I was coming here all along.'

    Alone at the table, Frank picked at his breakfast. They had been talking just twenty minutes, but he felt oppressed and weary. The world, overcharged with information, was hammering at them with guilts and fears. As if he, Frank, had just been used again as a sort of straw target for the moral archery of his brother's pride. He pushed the plate away.

    The heat was on Frank's back. Birds twittered in the cottonwoods.

    `You don't love Harvard Square more? Or sailing on the Zurichsee with Isidor and Pauli?' Frank gently tested him. `Or Bohr's vision, or Einstein's? Or cosmic-ray work with Neddermeyer, or Plutonium, or Fermi's reactor?'

    `That's behind me ... it was almost easy.' Robert smiled simply, refusing to be embarrassed. Blue smoke filmed above his head.

    `I can set up the math of a collapsing sun in the mind's eye,' he went on softly. `Like a landscape painter who's mastered the structure of sensation. Then add or change factors without losing the thread. I can see the mesons in cosmic rays as if they were stable, or anticipate a rare instability like U235.' Robert shaded his eyes. `But this place and our friends here — Paul, Don Amaldo — always seemed so mysterious, Frank. I've loved it so much I wanted to change it. Build altars. Be close to death, passion, ruin.'

    `The locals have already done it in the pueblos. And without Wall Street paying the bills.'

    `Not that kind, Frank. Being close to a really great ... breakthrough.'

    The grass knoll did not have the correct feel. Robert began slowly circling the picnic plot.

    `When you're up there for the first time, Frank. When you're completely alone with beautiful images?' Robert walked up and down, gesturing, and Frank saw the dust mark where the horse had thrown him. `They're all yours if you can possess them, in some bastardly way, keep someone else from having them!' he went on.

    Frank paused, stacking the plates and cups. He grinned.

    `What about Kitty? You love Kitty more, don't you?'

    Robert had stopped fifteen paces off, staring away. There was no answer. And for some reason Frank remembered a scene four years ago, across a continent. In New York overlooking the Hudson River.

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