- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From The CriticsAmerica'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.