A Hole in Texasby Herman Wouk
With this rollicking novel-hailed equally for its satiric bite, its lightly borne scientific savvy, and its tender compassion for foible-prone humanity-one of America's preeminent storytellers returns to fiction. Guy Carpenter is a regular guy, a family man, an obscure NASA scientist, when he is jolted out of his quiet life and summoned to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. Through a turn of events as unlikely as it is inevitable, Guy finds himself compromised by scandal and romance, hounded by Hollywood, and agonizingly alone at the white-hot center of a firestorm ignited as three potent forces of American culture--politics, big science, and the media--spectacularly collide.
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A Hole in TexasA Novel
By Herman Wouk
Little, BrownCopyright © 2004 Herman Wouk
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE PARTICLE PHYSICIST
We all have bad days, and Dr. Guy Carpenter awoke to rain drumming on gray windows, with a qualm in his gut about what this drab day might bring. Late at night an e-mail had come in, summoning him to an urgent morning meeting at the Jet Propulsion Lab with no reason given, an ill omen indeed to a survivor of the abort on the Texas plain. He was in pajamas at the desk in his den, gnawing at a slice of Swiss cheese on sourdough bread as he marked up a gloomy cost estimate of new space telescopes, when his wife burst in, her long black hair hanging in wet tangled ringlets, her soaked nightgown clinging transparently to her slim body. "Sweeney got out," she barked.
"No! How, this time?"
"I took out the trash, that's how. They collect it Wednesday at seven, or have you forgotten? It's raining buckets, I hurried, I left the screen door unlatched, and the bastard slipped out. I tried to catch him and got drenched."
"I'll find him."
"Don't you have that meeting at seven-thirty? I'm wet through and stark naked, as you see, or I'd look for him."
"No problem. Sorry about the trash."
Dr. Carpenter threw on a raincoat and plodded out barefoot on slippery grass. The downpour was helpful. Sweeney hated the wet, so he would be holed up in some dry spot of the backyard instead of hightailing it over the fence for a major chase, and if that failed, a general neighborhood alarm. Penny's obsession for keeping her cat indoors was a given of their marriage. Wonderful wife, Penny, with a human weakness or two such as a slight streak of jealousy and an unarguable dogma that outside cats were short-lived. Sweeney, a resourceful Siamese, ignored her for a doting fool, he knew he would never die, and he lay in wait for any chance to get out.
Poking here and there, Carpenter spied the bedraggled creature under a padded lounge chair. Okay, Sweeney! He crouched to grab the beast. Sweeney inched rearward just beyond his grasp, blinking at him. Standard cat maneuver, but this was no time for such foolery, so Carpenter kicked the chair aside and pounced on the cat. With an electric stab of pain, his back went out. Three weeks of slow healing, shot in an instant! He had pulled a muscle playing tennis, with an overhand smash at set point plunk into the net; and now this, no tennis for at least another three weeks. Standard Carpenter performance, he thought, clutching at his throbbing back. Guy's colleagues regarded him as a top man in high-energy physics, his wife Penny adored him when he remembered to take out the trash, but he had a downbeat opinion of Dr. Guy Carpenter, due to a perfectionist bent always nagging at his self-esteem.
"Bad cat," Penny said as he brought Sweeney in, meowing in outrage. Muffled in a bathrobe, she was drying her hair. "Good Lord, you're drowned. I hope you didn't catch your death. The Project Scientist phoned in a huge tizzy -"
"Call her back, say I'm on my way."
Wincing at each move, he dressed, limped out to the garage, and eased himself into his car. When he pressed the garage-door opener, nothing happened. What now? Low battery? He lurched to Penny's car and tried her remote. It did not work, either. The wall button goosed the door to rattle upward a foot, then it halted. He had never before tried using the manual lift. How did it work, exactly? He grasped the thick rough cord in both hands and with excruciating pain hauled the screeching door halfway up, where it stuck. His lower back aflame, pulsating, he called the Project Scientist on his cell phone to beg off from the meeting.
She was unsympathetic. "Guy, take a couple of Aleves. Peter's on his way. Why don't I alert him to pick you up? You've got to be here."
"Why me, Ottoline? I'm crippled, I tell you -"
"You know more about the Superconducting Super Collider than anyone here."
"The Super Collider? So what? It was killed back in '93. It's dead and forgotten."
"How's that? For crying out loud, Ottoline, what's up?"
"Not over the phone. I'll page Peter and see you in a bit."
Penny said, "Aleve, my foot," and gave him two of her migraine capsules. "These will do the trick."
"Codeine? I'll be a zombie," he protested, downing them.
"All the better. Don't commit yourself to anything involving colliders."
"Not with a knife at my throat."
Soft soothing warmth gradually suffused his back as he waited for Peter Braunstein. Memories flooded him, memories long suppressed, released and made dreamily vivid by the opiate. Those years in alien Texas, years of working his heart out on that stupendous machine; years of the greatest fun and challenge in his life, and the worst frustration! He knew too much, that was the trouble. The monster might well have worked, but then again, every one of those ten thousand supermagnets had to function flawlessly, and they were his responsibility. He had fought in vain for more time, more careful designing, more testing. Hurry, hurry, national prestige at stake, get the thing going, then see! That was the word from on high, with unsubtle slurs about his foot-dragging -
"Guy?" Peter Braunstein on the cell phone. "I'm calling from my car. You okay?"
"I'll live. What the devil's going on, Peter?"
"I just asked Ottoline when she called me about you. She said, 'Budget,' and hung up. Be right there."
Budget ... The haunt of modern science ... The delayed-action bomb that had sunk the SSC! The NASA budget review in Congress happened every year around this time. NASA supported the Jet Propulsion Lab, JPL supported the Terrestrial Planet Finder, and that project was Ottoline's baby, so no doubt that was why she was on edge. Still, why the urgency? Their project had never yet run into a money problem. The Terrestrial Planet Finder was part of NASA's Origins Program, which was exploring two grand questions about human existence:
(1) Are we alone? (2) Where did we come from?
A tall order, a noble endeavor, and their part of it was to search for signs of life on planets circling remote stars. The new space telescopes, if they could get the budget for them, would go a long way toward solving these riddles ...
Honk, honk outside the garage. Stooping to pass under the half-raised door was pleasantly painless. Guy's burly bearded tennis partner, a Cornell classmate and now an eminent astrophysicist, helped him into the high front seat of a battered camper. It was Peter Braunstein who, after the Texas debacle, had recruited Guy for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He said as he drove, "Well, let's hope it's NASA that's getting the heat, not our project."
"Peter, we're small potatoes."
"We're NASA small potatoes, Guy. NASA's been in trouble ever since the last Americans flew off the moon, you know that. No one big mission, a grab bag of dicey missions like ours, the media just yawn at the marvelous leaps ahead in space science, and every now and then a disaster throws the whole nervous bureaucracy into shock -"
"Go ahead, cheer me up," said Carpenter. He was happy at JPL, proud of his work on the Planet Finder, and he tried not to think beyond his day-to-day work. For a high-energy physicist, relocating yet again at his age would be murder.
"Oh, Ottoline's the worrier. I think we'll be okay. It's just that Congress is muttering more and more every year about money for NASA. Martian landscapes and floating astronauts are getting to be old stuff, Guy. Where's the payoff?"
"A new more powerful bomb, you mean?" said Guy Carpenter. "Contact with aliens, maybe?"
"Something," said Braunstein, swinging the car into the JPL parking lot.
Excerpted from A Hole in Texas by Herman Wouk Copyright © 2004 by Herman Wouk. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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A very nerdy novel that is also entertaining, A Hole in Texas is an intriguing book that has the science fiction feel without all the blasters, spaceships, and other undeveloped technology. There's a satirical feel to it, criticizing Hollywood and Congress for their poor jobs in trying to understand what the scientific community is really all about. The explanations for the Higgs boson and other theories are clear and interesting; the author knows when to stop, so not to bore the reader. Every event seems entirely plausible, the plot is smooth, and there are a variety of sub-plots. Carpenter, the main character, is portrayed in conflicting lights: a devoted husband and an unattached bachelor. Much of the book centers on dialogue, so it's sometimes hard to recall who is speaking, what their characteristics are, and how they might react. Overall, this book was a very excellent read.
I love the book
I had almost forgotten how much I enjoyed some of his earlier works and I just picked this up on a whim and enjoyed every page.
Mix Crichton's science, Chris Buckley's Washington satire, and Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything and you'd have A Hole in Texas. A fine read made even more enjoyable knowing it's author is 88 years old.
Here we have the basic reasons why Wouk will never be treated as a serious writer. While he can keep you from falling asleep, he doesn't have the tools to accomplish much more than that. The plot is predictable, the science is straightforward, and the characters stock and typecast. In his better books (like The Winds of War and War and Remembrance) his storytelling skills--and they can be genuinely awesome--are sharp as can be. But here they lag, and so does the book. Forgettable.
Herman Wouk is among the all-time great American novelists. His best books are the historical war-time fictions, which are long and potentially daunting to an unfamiliar reader. What I love about this book is Wouk's classic character development, diaglogue and story-telling in less than 300 pages. This is a fast-moving and action-packed book, and it's exciting how the author manages all of the subplots and brings them to a crescendo at the end before bringing everything to an adequate close. I highly recommend this as a starter novel for anyone who has never read Herman Wouk or as a gift, and if you're already a Wouk fan you won't be disappointed.
Having worked 5 years at the Super Collider, I was very interested in reading this book. However, after the first 100 pages, I simply could not continue reading--just skimmed the rest. I found it utterly boring and unrelated to the SSC I knew. This is not even a good novel.