Operation Wandering Soul

Operation Wandering Soul

by Richard Powers

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Highly imaginative and emotionally powerful, this stunning novel about childhood innocence amid the nightmarish disease and deterioration at the heart of modern Los Angeles was nominated for a National Book Award.  See more details below


Highly imaginative and emotionally powerful, this stunning novel about childhood innocence amid the nightmarish disease and deterioration at the heart of modern Los Angeles was nominated for a National Book Award.

Editorial Reviews

Washington Post Book World
Powers's prose soars like the most magnificent of choirs, memorably capturing the moments of joy and anguish, barrenness and grace, that add up to life.
USA Today
If you have children or will have children, if you know children or can remember being a child, dare to read Operation Wandering Soul...Dense in knowledge, rich in imagination, powerful in expression, [it] is bedtime reading for the future. Like the stories read to children, this intensely caring novel can help prevent the nightmare it describes, children out too late at night, far from home, lost, the wandering souls of the future, our future.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Powers, the certified (by a MacArthur grant) genius whose last novel was the much-admired Gold Bug Variations , continues to baffle and excite with his new book. Set in the pediatric ward of a big L.A. hospital in the apparently near future, it is a vast, impassioned fantasy-allegory about the plight of the world's children in a time of cynicism, corruption and easy destruction of life. The only recognizable adults are surgical resident Richard Kraft, desperately weary of trying to patch up the shattered lives and bodies of innocents, and therapist Linda Espera, who tries to instill hope through storytelling and play-acting. The two are deeply involved with a band of patients led by a precociously wise but hopelessly crippled Thai girl and a cynical, commanding boy whose rare disease has withered his body into that of an old man. Richard and Linda evoke for the children, or share with the reader, various factual and fabulous accounts of endangered children through the centuries: England during the blitz, the Pied Piper legend rendered amazingly contemporary, the abortive medieval Children's Crusade portrayed by a comic book, flashes of Peter Pan. As always with Powers, the verbal dexterity is amazing, but ultimately exhausting. He is quite capable of fluent sequential narrative, and readers will be relieved when he lapses into it after all the self-conscious brilliance and endlessly impressive allusion. Powers has a remarkable, virtuoso voice and much to say with it, but he desperately needs to curb his apparent need to show it off. (May)
Library Journal
Although shorter than Powers's massive and magnificent The Gold Bug Variations ( LJ 6/15/91), this remarkable novel is just as packed with allusions from literature, history, science, folklore, medicine, and music. On the surface, it is the story of the doomed romance between an overworked, emotionally exhausted pediatric surgeon and a physical therapist and of their efforts to rescue the children in their care from their prescribed fates. But beneath its cover story--and this novel plumbs great depths--this is nothing less than the story of humankind, with the Pied Piper as central metaphor. That tale is turned into traveling theater by the hospital kids and its text provided with such historical glosses as the Children's Crusade and the mass evacuation of school children from London during the Blitz. What are we doing here? Where are we going? These questions echo throughout the book, but finding answers is left to the reader. A dazzling performance: delightful, dismaying, disturbing, doing all that novels are meant to do.-- Charles Michaud, Turner Free Lib., Randolph, Mass.
Kirkus Reviews
Childhood innocence—imperiled through the ages and nowhere more at risk than in the heart of modern Los Angeles—stands as the imposing theme of Powers's latest complex, wrenching saga. As overwhelming and erudite as its acclaimed predecessor, The Gold Bug Variations (1991), here evidence of children at odds with the adult world in which they live abounds, from the legend of the Pied Piper to tragic details of the Children's Crusade to more recent obliterations of youthful dreams in Southeast Asia and Watts. Holding this savage, sorrowful indictment of post-adolescent behavior together is the tale of a pediatrics ward in an inner-city hospital, into which the world's indigent wounded are thrown with abandon. Cared for by a fiercely protective therapist and a sensitive surgical resident—themselves careworn and devastated by traumas of youth, but seeking redemption—the ward acquires a life and plan of its own when Joy, a Laotian boat girl whose ravenous appetite for knowledge cannot stave off the rot consuming her from the ankles up, and Nicolino, a street-wise, shrewd trader in comics and other commodities wizened well before his time by Methuselah Syndrome, take the situation in hand. Using a ward-wide production of the Pied Piper story presented to the outside world as their means, they plot a mass escape in order to become masters of their own fates—but their designs for liberation falter before the realities of disease and adult agendas. Mingling wisps of whimsy and a hard-edged, surgical view, this cuts deeply into the human condition—to a dark, profoundly troubled place where hope and despair exist side by side.

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.88(d)

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Chapter One

Kraft cruises down the Golden State: would it were so. "Cruise" is a generous figure of speech at best, label from another time and biome still imbued with quaint, midcentury vigor, the incurably sanguine suggestion of motion more forward than lateral. "Cruise" is for the Autobahn, the Jet Stream, Club Med. What's the real word, local parlance? Shoosh. Shunt. Slalom.

Freeways, like rivers, age and meander. Lane lines, at this hour, are just a manufacturer's suggested retail, more of an honor system than anything worth bothering with. Relics, mementos, the tourist scratches on the pavement marking the sites of annihilated Spanish missions.

Up ahead, the Blue Angels run interference for an Esther Williams aqua ballet. A lazy, Quaalude cross-drift of traffic skims across Kraft's viewing screen, flow and counterflow canceling out in diffraction pattern to form a standing wave. Several hoods in front of him, sleek little fuel-injected Alpha particle manned by sandalwood-haired guy hugging cellular phone swaps places with convertible Stuttgart-apparatus piloted by blond bombshell lip-syncing to the same song Kraft himself has tuned in on the radio. Eight seconds later, for no reason in creation, the two swap back. The exchange is duplicated all across the event horizon, a synchronized, pointless, mass red shift.

Fortunately, most everyone is a diploma holder here. Driver's Ed: the backbone of the high school certificate. One might emerge from the system unable to add, predicate, or point to Canada on a map, but thanks to rigorous requirements would still be able to Aim High in Steering, Leave Oneself an Out, Second-guess the OtherGuy.

Casting his vision into the advance shoals, getting what his Driver's Ed teacher almost two decades ago affectionately if firmly referred to as The Big Picture, Kraft catches the total, pointillist effect: cars flaking off each other in the steady current, making a shimmering moire, like sheer curtains swaying in front of a screen. He takes his hands from the steering wheel, passes his extended fingers in front of one another in unconscious imitation. Time (in this country of everexpanding unusable free time) for an experiment: infinitesimal easing up on the throttle produces a gap between his grille and the nether parts of the Marquis in front of him. The instant this following distance exceeds a car length, the two vehicles on either side both try to slither in.

Proof. This shot-blast stream of continuous lane change is not prompted by anything so naive as the belief that the other queue is actually moving faster. The open spot simply must be filled on moral grounds. A question of commonweal. Switching into a slower-moving lane gives you something to do while tooling (tooling; that's the ticket) along at substandard speed through the work crews surfacing the next supplementary sixteen-lane expansion. Fills the otherwise-idle nanosecond. A way to absorb extraneous frontier spirit.

Kraft tacks west with the cattle trail. He read somewhere, a year ago, while still in the honeymoon, guidebook phase, that a mile of freeway eats up forty acres of land, give or take the mule. The whole idea came from the Nazis. Shoulders, median, dual carriageway, transition-free exit and entry ramps: the total driving environment. How many thousand acres thrashed in Angelinoland alone? Lord, I'm five hundred continuous north-south miles without a traffic light away from home. Throw in the east-wests, the redundant routes, the cloverleafs, the switchbacks and tributaries, and pretty soon you're talking real real estate.

And how many million tons of that double-bulge guardrail, spinning out its hypnotic thread cross-country, shadowing him however the chicanes slip 'n' slide? For a truly nauseating insight, Kraft considers the number of human lives devoted to manufacturing this hardware alone. Somewhere forges run full time just keeping up with the replacement pieces, the smashups, the decay of normal wear and tear. So what do you do for a living? Kraft's own answer, the chief career of daytime soaps and evening dramedies, patricidal America's most prestigious gig, half plumber, half God, is embarrassing enough to have to admit to seatmates on planes. But could have been worse. A wrong turn coming up through public school and he'd be answering: I manufacture those guard bumpers for the freeway. No--just the right-hand, convex ones. Although we are planning to diversify into mileage poles and overhead signs, the Japanese permitting.

Radio does its thing, successfully distracting him from sustained thought. Tune of the minute transmutes into a synthetically evil, crystal-meth-induced slam metal number about how the sheepman and the cattleman should be friends. Kraft considers pressing the auto-seek and floating to the next station up the dial, but he hasn't the will to discover what's lurking there in the high, truly antinomian frequencies.

He's under the impression, and would like to go empirical on this, that the city's top-polling radio tune at any given minute has a marked influence on traffic's turbulence. Audio Santa Anas, chill melodies blowing in from the vents under the dash along with the AC, raising the collective arm hair in every one of these climatrolled driving cubicles, making everybody just itch to, well, Aim High in Steering. Off somebody. Been happening a lot again, lately: a Man, a Plan, some ammo, blammo--Panama! Somebody's got to scrape together a grant to graph freeway shooting frequencies versus the Billboard Top Ten.

The occasional public service breaks on behalf of the president's current call to arms serve only to obscure the narcotic of choice in its many trappings currently being vended by the sponsors' interludes. Sure enough, by the time the next three-minute rhythm gets into full, band-box swing, the flow of control down the pike in front of Kraft settles into the unmistakable ripple effect of gapers' block.

Something has happened. Simple, unmitigated Event, the palpable Here and Now, or as close as we get to it these days--the view through the dash. As one, people slow for a look: not to pin blame on skid or stupidity. Not to check out the parts failure or the make of the shotgun. They want to get a glimpse, to see the caller up close for once, bag his ID, collect his ephemeral calling card, gawk at the forgotten familiar, take down the number on his hideous, out-of-town plates.

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Meet the Author

RICHARD POWERS is the author of ten novels. The Echo Maker won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Powers has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction. He lives in Illinois.


Brief Biography

Urbana, Illinois
Date of Birth:
June 18, 1957
Place of Birth:
Evanston, Illinois
M.A., University of Illinois, 1979

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