My Cold War

My Cold War

by Tom Piazza

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A sharp, searching novel of an American son and the family he left behind from a writer of rare breadth and human insight.

My Cold War is a critically acclaimed debut novel of extraordinary depth and range : the story of a man's alienation and attempts at reconnection with his family, and a rich exploration of the thorny implications of American


A sharp, searching novel of an American son and the family he left behind from a writer of rare breadth and human insight.

My Cold War is a critically acclaimed debut novel of extraordinary depth and range : the story of a man's alienation and attempts at reconnection with his family, and a rich exploration of the thorny implications of American popular culture.

At its center is John Delano, a professor of Cold War Studies and successful mass–market historian a la Stephen Ambrose or Ken Burns. Raised by an awkward, embittered father and a frustrated mother in a Levittown–style suburb on Long Island, Delano has made a name for himself as a gimmicky interpreter of Cold War America, a controversial but popular repackager of events like the JFK assassination for those who lived through them without noticing.

And yet, as the novel opens, Delano has reached an impasse: during a crisis of confidence, he shelves a major new book project in favor of a quest to drive to the Midwest and seek out his estranged younger brother. But when the trip ends in a sobering discovery that his brother has led a life of desperate transience, grasping at straws and scapegoats He undergoes an epiphany that propels him back to the newly sacred ground where he and his brother were raised.

Long recognized as a writer of exceptional vision and unflinching candor, Tom Piazza has crafted a novel full of incident and argument, a book that speaks with depth and range about what it has meant to be American in our time.

Editorial Reviews

Norman Mailer
"This novel is like a treasure hunt, which is to say it is very well-observed."
—Norman Mailer
“This novel is like a treasure hunt, which is to say it is very well-observed.”
—Norman Mailer
“This novel is like a treasure hunt, which is to say it is very well-observed.”
The New York Times
My Cold War works better when it's not in academic satire mode; there's a painful, penetrating authenticity in Delano's memories of growing up in a Long Island suburb during the cold war and in his portraits of his relationships with his volatile, loner father and emotionally fragile brother. It's in these sections that Piazza—whose previous work of fiction was a story collection titled Blues and Trouble—reveals the depth of his perceptiveness and talent.—Sherie Posesorski
USA Today
Layers of delight are to be found in short-story writer Tom Piazza's first novel...Delano may be a confused character, but Piazza is not a confusing writer. My Cold War is written clearly and conversationally.—J. Ford Huffman
The Washington Post
… quietly disarming.
Publishers Weekly
This richly textured but uneven first novel by Piazza (Blues and Trouble) opens with John Delano, a Connecticut college professor of Cold War Studies, trying, unsuccessfully, to pen John Delano's Cold War, an unorthodox opus that looks at events as "pure phenomena." Analyzing surface and image (instead of "boring history stuff," as a former student puts it) has earned John popularity in the classroom, but some disdain in the faculty lounge for his "History McNuggets." When his father, from whom he was estranged, dies, John's concentration fails him; instead of writing, he recollects his turbulent childhood: his father's steady decline into mental illness, his mother's struggles and love affairs, the growing despondency of his brother, Chris. John narrates his youth with spot-on 1960s details-Johnny Carson hosting Don Rickles, the Summer of Love, the pot fumes-and poignant personal memories, from meeting his wife, Val, at a labor conference, to the pain of his mother's death. Struggling to free himself from writer's "limbo," John calls Chris, to whom he has not spoken in years, proposing to visit him in Iowa; he imagines that he will scrap his Cold War book and instead write a memoir about their reunion. Their time together is awkward, poignant-and might have been the start of a renewed relationship. But John's discovery that Chris is involved in a racist group sparks another conflict, and John's subsequent decision to visit the house he grew up in provides the novel's heartbreaking final pages. The academic play of the novel's opening feels flat in comparison to the powerful longing at its end, but this is an incisive portrait of a man, his troubled family and their place in history. Author tour. (Sept.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A brooding look back at 1960s suburbia, this first novel from James Michener Award winner Piazza (Blues and Trouble) is told from the perspective of college professor John Delano. Delano's field is history and his specialty the Cold War period, but he is disdained by his fellow academics for his less-than-scholarly approach. His estrangement from his childhood and family is so complete that he doesn't use his birth name and hasn't spoken to his younger brother Chris in eight years. When Delano fails to progress on his latest book, a popular history of the images of the Cold War, he undertakes a journey to reconnect with Chris and the childhood he left behind. The result is not entirely happy-he finds Chris in a rented house in rural Iowa, living a marginal life and hanging out with a radical, racist element-but this dark, personal, sadly introspective work succeeds in bringing to life the troubled main character. Recommended for most collections.-Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Michener Award-winning storywriter author Piazza (Blues and Trouble, 1996) delineates a historian's midlife crisis in his first novel, recipient of the Faulkner Society Medal. Narrator John Delano, a professor at Hollister College in Connecticut, made his reputation with studies of the Cold War focused on imagery rather than content. A former student who's now a hotshot New York editor has given him big bucks for a book to "approach the Cold War strictly from the surface, as you do in class." But Delano can't write it. His father just died, he's had some unpleasant run-ins with fellow professors who disdain his "value-neutral" methodology, even his wife, an earnest labor organizer, is increasingly alienated by his deconstructionist attitude toward life. He's plagued by unwanted memories: of his childhood in Atlanticville, Long Island ("classic Levittown-style suburbia"); of his father's free-floating anger, rabid conservatism, and eventual nervous breakdown; of his sweet younger brother Chris, whom he hasn't spoken to in eight years. Of course he can't get out of his professional bind until he grapples with his personal problems, so the overdetermined plot sends him off to find Chris, who has fallen in with a nasty bunch of white supremacists in Iowa. Our hyper-self-aware protagonist realizes that he may want to reconcile with his brother just so he can use their meeting as fodder for a book to give his editor in place of the one he can't write, and this knowingness is a problem with My Cold War as a whole. Everything is analyzed to death, and the insights are stale. You feel you've heard it all before, right down to the glib finale, in which Delano heads toward his hometown and turns offto visit the Atlanticville Historical Museum, where his past is under glass as an architect's model of the suburban development he grew up in. Intelligent, sharply observed, often very funny-the portraits of various trendy academics are a scream-but never gets beyond generic Baby Boomer angst.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.58(w) x 8.76(h) x 0.66(d)

Read an Excerpt

My Cold War
A Novel

Chapter One

My Mother had just moved to New York City from Eau Claire in 1949, when she met Marie Kelso. Marie was four or five years older and lived in the same women's residence on Thirteenth Street, operated by the Salvation Army. She always cut through in the little black-and-white photos they used to take, so sparingly, at parties. There she was, on the arm of the sofa, holding a cigarette and a highball like everybody else, laughing like the others, but as if she were having an inside joke with the viewer of the photo, a little voltage in the eye that spoke of knowing things the other girls didn't. She had been kind of wild -- code for premarital sex -- despite being a Catholic, but maybe because of that she became a sort of den mother to the younger women. She was in her late thirties before she finally got married, to a businessman named Bill. They never had any children.

My mother left the women's residence for her own apartment in 1951 and -- you know how these things go -- saw Marie occasionally, but when she married my father and moved out to Atlanticville, on Long Island, it got harder to maintain the old friendships. A phone call now and then, and then no phone calls for a long while.

Then, out of the blue, a call from Marie Kelso. It was 1962. She and Bill were living in New Jersey. "I wanted to see how the lovebirds were doing," she said. My mom talked to her for almost an hour, and by the end of the conversation, they had made plans for Marie to visit us in Atlanticville. As it turned out, Marie had something on her mind besides auld lang syne. She wanted my parents to join the John Birch Society.

My Mother had come to New York to work in retail, for which she had prepared at Thellinger's department store in Eau Claire. New York -- the great dream, as it still was. Not just a vehicle for making money but a destination, spiritual and material, in itself. She got a job at Saks and, over a year and a half, rose steadily from counter girl to assistant buyer. Her life was dotted with glamorous parties, encounters with movie stars; her clients included Rita Hayworth, and once she even brought clothes to Mae West's apartment. In pictures from that time, her honey-blond hair spills down over the shoulders of a beautiful striped silk blouse or a gray tailored suit, always a cigarette in her hand, laughing ...

She met my father one evening while she was pinch-hitting at one of the sweater counters during the pre-Christmas rush. Winking lights of Rockefeller Plaza, people rushing by on the sidewalks, the chill of December in the folds of their overcoats, smell of pretzels and chestnuts in the blue stove smoke ... He had stopped in to buy a sweater for his mother, and Mom had assisted him. He was still living with his parents on the far edge of Queens, working in the city, and he came back the next week, hunted her up, and they had a date, they began a courtship.

My father was very handsome -- people said he resembled the actor Tyrone Power -- but he had a slightly withered left arm. You had to look for a minute or two to notice it, and then only with his shirt off. He was also, it turned out, epileptic, although he didn't tell my mother about that until after they were engaged. It had kept him out of the war.

My mother had just come off a heartbreak. She was susceptible. Another year or so and she would have been a full buyer, and it would have been a corner to turn. She was at the corner already. In any case her life was rolling, but she was late getting married for those days -- twenty-six! -- and when the previous love withdrew, he left an emptiness that hadn't been there before. Suddenly New York and the life and the glamour were tinged with a hint of rue on the breeze, a rue that she knew could roll in heavier as the shadows grew. This is all speculation, basically, but that's where she was when my father entered the picture.

He wasn't making a lot of money, but he was doing something, electrical engineering, that had the potential for growth, something technical that had required lots of training, and he was smart, he could be funny, he had a good family -- or, let us say, a large extended family with some material comfort. They got married.

Atlanticville. They bought the house for twelve thousand dollars, a decent chunk of money at the time.

Everybody else, it seems, had the same idea. Your own house, your own yard. All those boys and girls who had grown up in the tenements and alleys of Brooklyn and Queens or the Lower East Side and who had shipped out to fight the war, cigarette by cigarette, boot by boot. No particular education, except for those who came back for technical school on the GI Bill at CCNY or NYU. Atlanticville, and all the other towns like it, grew up for them overnight. Land that had been potato farms or marsh before the war was now bought up, filled in, and carved into little squares, like a tray of brownies. The developers named the streets with Indian words peculiar to tribes that had long since been driven off, or they named them for trees or for the developer's own children. My parents moved there because that was what they could afford; I don't think they necessarily planned on staying ...

My Cold War
A Novel
. Copyright © by Tom Piazza. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are saying about this

Norman Mailer
“This novel is like a treasure hunt, which is to say it is very well-observed.”

Meet the Author

Tom Piazza is the author of the novels City of Refuge and My Cold War, the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters, the essay collection Devil Sent the Rain, and many other works. He was a principal writer for the HBO drama series Treme and the winner of a Grammy Award for his album notes to Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues: A Musical Journey. He lives in New Orleans.

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