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Paul Russell's delicately layered, richly textured novels have won him widespread acclaim as one of the finest contemporary American novelists. Sea of Tranquillity, possibly his most ambitious and rewarding novel, traces a disintegrating nuclear family across two tumultuous decades of American life - from the early '60s to the '80s - and is told in a quartet of voices: astronaut Allen Cloud, his wife, their gay son, Jonathan, and his friend/lover. Ranging in time and emotion from the optimism of the first moon ...
Paul Russell's delicately layered, richly textured novels have won him widespread acclaim as one of the finest contemporary American novelists. Sea of Tranquillity, possibly his most ambitious and rewarding novel, traces a disintegrating nuclear family across two tumultuous decades of American life - from the early '60s to the '80s - and is told in a quartet of voices: astronaut Allen Cloud, his wife, their gay son, Jonathan, and his friend/lover. Ranging in time and emotion from the optimism of the first moon shot to the dark landscape of the age of AIDS, Sea of Tranquillity is an extraordinary and compelling novel.
SEA OF TRANQUILITY
There's the time Allen comes home from a week's survival training in Panama to find Joan sprawled in bed with an empty bottle of vodka and a pistol—his old Air Force-issue Colt. It's lain untouched in the dresser drawer for years.
He's more surprised than alarmed, and Joan isn't so much pointing the pistol as using it to randomly punctuate her rapid, oblivious monologue. He's heard her talking since the instant he walked in the back door. His first thought: she's rehearsing some play for the community theater that takes so much of her time. But he knows, even before he's stepped into the darkened bedroom to catch her at it, how wrong he is.
"Joan," he says. "What on earth?"
"Sorry," she tells him, laying down both the pistol and the vodka bottle, one to either side of her, with exaggerated care. "I seem to have lost track of time."
Disheveled in her housecoat, amid rumpled sheets and strewn pillows, one hand resting lightly on the pistol, the other on the empty bottle, she's sheepish. She lies there and refuses to look at him. He glides quickly to the bed and pounces on the pistol, which, without any struggle, she relinquishes from her grip.
"It's not loaded," she assures him—but he checks the clip, racks the slide just to be sure. A single bullet pops out onto the carpet. Reaching down, still not quite believing, he picks it up and shows it to her.
Joan takes a careful look and closes her eyes. Allen sticks the pistol in the waistband of his trousers and clenches the bullet tightly in his fist.
He asks, "Have you gone totally berserk on me?"
"Take a good look," she says. "This is a binge. Nearly anything can happen."
"No," he tells her. He slides the bullet into his pocket, out of harm's way. "This is just a really unconscionable thing to be doing to yourself."
"Unconscionable." The word makes her laugh out loud, an abrupt explosion that trails off into a belch.
"Joan." He speaks her name forcefully, as if to reclaim this woman he's clearly never known in all their sixteen years of marriage. In the bedroom's half light, reeking of sweat, drunkenness, slumber—she might as well be anybody.
"Where's Jonathan?" he asks.
She moves to pick up the vodka bottle, but he stops her. He holds her wrist tightly.
"You should know," she says, her words blurred, "I think our son is a homosexual."
Allen blinks hard three or four times.
"Be quiet," he commands sharply.
"You want to know," she continues, "or just pretend I didn't say it?"
"Joan," he says, "don't talk to me like this. I don't want to hear anything."
Drunkenness makes her grand and vague. "What he's up to," she tells him, "where he is right now, for example, I have no idea. I never know where he is anymore."
Then turning her face away from him, into the pillow, she bursts into sobs. "Don't get angry with me," she says fiercely, her voice muffled. "Don't you dare."
But he isn't angry with her. He never gets angry with people, just with bad luck. And up till now, he and Joan have been the luckiest people alive.
This is a test, he thinks. Another contingency, another procedure. NASA's famous for its procedures. But it isn't, he knows, a test. For once it's just life, and there's no test, no procedure on the books for that. The slow burn starts under his heart, flushes its way into the open.Suddenly he can't stand to be in the room with Joan another instant. He releases her from his grip and bolts for the door. But her sobs, as he stalks the rooms of the house, somehow follow him—acoustic fluke of heating vents, echo space between the walls. His house—and yet, away as he is for weeks at a time, he's never spent enough time here to feel at home: not in the living room with its lifeless furniture Joan's kept pristine over the years for company, not in the formal dining room where they never eat. Only the kitchen has any kind of warmth. Filtered by the thinning shade outdoors, October light slants through the windows, fills the breakfast nook, where on ordinary mornings he'll have coffee, a quick glance at the newspaper before heading out to whatever city the week's training takes him; or a late-night pizza, some beers, just himself and Joan in bleary reunion after long days apart.
His circuit carries him out into the hallway and up the stairs. He hasn't been up here in weeks, he realizes, maybe months. No reason, really. Jonathan's bedroom is here, a guest room, a bathroom at the end of the hall. Narrow stairs lead up to the big attic Allen's always thought of finishing as a study, but of course there's never any time. At Jonathan's door he pauses, listening. No sound—the boy's out—but still he knocks once before barging in.
In there is another world. Garish posters cover the walls: rock stars, a lunar map, blue-skinned Hindu gods. Desktop, bed, floor: everywhere littered with things. The strong smell of incense assaults him. Joan's words, that he's held in check for several minutes, flood over him and he winces to fight them back. A little speech for later gathers in his head: I don't want this house going up in flames, mister, just because you think it's hip to burn incense in your room.
If he could just say that to Jonathan and be done with it, let everything else slide by.
It's hard to know where to step. Scattered about the room among discarded clothes, school books, and sneakers lie various odd souvenirs Jonathan's scavenged over the years: geodes, old green-glass insulators, dried seed pods, a bright orange rabbit's foot.
A blue lava lamp percolates grotesquely in the corner.
Carefully Allen picks his way over to a nightstand beside Jonathan's bed. A cone of incense there has burned completely to ash, yet it remains intact, its shape fragile but perfect. Gingerly, afraid of jarringsomething invisible, he sits down on the unmade bed and wonders where on earth Jonathan came up with jet-black sheets, of all the crazy things.
Over the dresser Jonathan's hung a large color photograph of Michelangelo's statue of David. Only he's doctored it: where a fig leaf should be, he's pasted a cutout of ruby-red lips. Boldly parted, those lips leer at Allen. A tongue lolls obscenely between them.
And only hours ago, Allen thinks, I rode the dawn in from Florida in a T-33. Everything was fine and clear. I never suspected a thing.
Jonathan's room is definitely a fire hazard. Beyond that, it's simply a hazard. Allen's stare keeps returning, squeamishly, to the poster of the David statue and those lips, that long dangerous tongue.
He gives up. Abandoning his house for the cool refuge of the garage he takes several deep breaths: he likes it here, the musty, masculine smell of gasoline and grass clippings, clutter of old bicycles, a trampoline set, a seldom-used fiberglass canoe.
Pulling the pistol from his waistband, he hefts its sober weight in his hand. A single bullet in the slide, now safely in his pocket. He fingers it there among loose change. "Goddamn it, Joan," he says aloud. He stows the Colt in a box, underneath old National Geographics Joan insisted they save for Jonathan to help him in his school projects, something that to Allen's knowledge has never happened.
Next to the Ford Galaxy family car, his white Corvette gleams. His only indulgence, a richly deserved reward after the Gemini mission. And Joan has always hated sports cars. The day he brought it home she stood on the front steps, arms crossed, and refused to come out to the driveway to admire it. Now he flees in its safety along the suburban streets of Nassau Bay and out to the interstate. Saturday morning, and the fabled Houston traffic is light. A faint tang of smog hazes the air. On this side of the city the recent boom of suburban development fades quickly, till soon he's in open country beyond the city limits. Interstate 45 angles a clear run south toward Galveston and the coast: straight as an arrow and practically deserted. He floors the accelerator, savors the bracing spurt of speed. He can see ahead to the horizon. The flat land blurs past, telephone poles tick by. Beyond the curve of earth, clouds flower over the Gulf of Mexico, cumulonimbus, majestic formations. Their shadows fall over water far from land. He loves clouds, he can watch them for hours, their slow surprising evolution.
What shocks, even shames him, he realizes, is that he never noticed anything. That's the truly unconscionable thing: how he didn't see it coming. Not till it's all hit full force and he knows—ace fighter pilot he might once have been, seven kills to his credit over the brilliant skies of Korea, MIG Alley all the way up to Suey Ho—no matter how skillfully he might try to evade it, his family has cracked, shattered, fallen in a fiery rain of debris completely out from under him.
Later in the afternoon he calls Frank.
"I need a drink," he says. "Want to invite me over for a drink?"
The best and worst that can be said about Frank is that he's always ready for a drink. A flight planner, Frank dreamed up the notion of centering the Apollo program star charts around the plane of the ecliptic instead of the lunar equator. In his way he's brilliant, indispensible. Allen's known him for years. It was Frank who alerted him to the supercheap mortgages NASA employees were getting in Nassau Bay. Their houses went up at the same time, next door to each other, and are nearly identical colonial two-stories. They barbecue together, he swims in Frank's pool. Their wives belong to the wives' club, act in the local theater together.
"So what are we celebrating?" Frank asks once they're armed with martinis and settled in lawn chairs by the swimming pool.
"How about a little navigation trouble?" Allen jokes, but regrets it as soon as he says it.
Frank settles comfortably into his chair. He's a little man, wiry and balding, with a broad Alabama accent. "Cryptic," he observes.
"Yeah, well," Allen says. He feels the sickness underneath his heart again and backs off. "Terrific martini."
"The secret is dry, dry, dry," Frank says. "Half a drop of vermouth. Less, if you can manage. Personally, I recommend opening your vermouth, taking a deep sniff of it, then breathing it out slowly over the gin. That, to my mind, is all the vermouth you need. A whisper."
Allen doesn't mind that he's heard the secret of Frank's martinis a dozen times before. Frank explains it with such gusto.
"You're not here to talk about martinis," Frank observes.
Allen hates this. He wants to be flying airplanes. He wants to be in Baltimore doing underwater simulation, or in Panama learning to surviveon iguana meat. He wants to be weightless for thirty seconds in a falling 707.
He takes a deep breath and plunges into the free-fall of confession. "I consider you my friend," he says.
It puts Frank subtly on alert. "Likewise," he acknowledges.
Allen loses heart almost immediately. "I need to talk to somebody in confidence," he admits.
"Total confidence," he stresses.
"Total confidence," Frank says.
Allen pauses. Two huge sycamores shade all of Frank's backyard and half of Allen's. Fall has begun to yellow their leaves. The afternoon is mild, humid. A couple of leaves float on the surface of the pool. From this vantage, Allen's house looks entirely reasonable; it gives away nothing of its discontents.
He expels a long breath.
"I can't do it," he says. "Sorry."
They sit in embarrassed silence. He can't believe she'd actually loaded the pistol. A surge of fear rushes from somewhere deep in his bowels. He rubs the pad of his right thumb with the side of his forefinger, a secret insistent motion that in times of stress usually calms him.
And it does seem to calm him. He takes in the ordinary, stabilizing things: a con trail high in the clear sky, the dapple of shade and sun on the grass, the serene blue of Frank's swimming pool. From a neighboring yard comes the steady drone of a lawn mower. He and Frank both watch as a young black man pushes around an old machine with giant spoked wheels.
Frank breaks the silence between them. "Enterprising fellow," he notes.
It's William, who does any number of lawns in the neighborhood. Though not the Clouds's lawn—mowing is Jonathan's chore.
"Last mow of the season," Allen speculates in order to drive Joan's hateful words, newly resurgent, out of his mind.
William's battered green pickup truck can be seen parked along the street most every day in summer.
"Sometimes, you know," Frank says, "you just need the opportunity to talk, and it serves the same function as actually talking."
Allen's not sure what he even wanted to say to Frank in the firstplace. Suddenly, despite all their years together, the good times, they don't seem friends at all, just strangers thrown together for the ride. He can't believe he was about to confide anything in anybody.
He taps the side of his glass. "I should finish this and go back over to the house."
"Everything's okay down at the Cape? Walt and Mike are fine?"
But Allen's already retreated to safety. "Dandy," he says. Still, he remembers again how that bullet surprised him, popping out of the slide like it did—and he almost didn't check the slide, since the clip was empty.
"You seem a little, I don't know, shaken up this afternoon," Frank comments.
"And I'm unshakeable," Allen says with a laugh, his finger working nonstop and in secret against his thumb.
Sometimes the best course of action is simply no action. He decides to make dinner: salmon croquettes, a favorite from way back that his mother used to make, and one of the few things he ever cooks, since Joan does the cooking. He empties a can of salmon, chops an onion, spends a long time shaping and reshaping the patties before coating them in bread crumbs. A man cooking by himself, in a brightly lit kitchen, a meal from his childhood: for an instant, he finds himself blinking back tears. He never cries, not in thirty years. The sizzle of Crisco in the frying pan soothes him.
He stands at the foot of the stairs and takes a deep breath.
"Jonathan," he calls, and his son appears at the top of the stairs.
"Hey," Jonathan says. He leans against the stair rail, hands in his pockets, a thin boy with hair that should have been cut months ago. He's wearing one of those garish tie-dyed T-shirts he always seems to have on these days: this one, all shades of purple and lavender, features in its central medallion a moon with a human eye staring from it. Disconcerted, Allen averts his gaze.
"Want some dinner?" he asks. His heart hammers in his chest.
"Sure," Jonathan says. "Love some." There's a lilt to that voice that Allen's heard since Jonathan was a child, but now it sets him strangely on edge.
"Then come get it," he says sharply—a reprimand, but for what he'snot sure. Jonathan, mercifully, doesn't seem to hear the shift in tone. He gives a thumbs up signal and disappears back to his room while Allen, wiping from his brow a film of sweat that's suddenly precipitated from nowhere, goes to the downstairs bedroom and knocks on the door. "Joan?" he says softly. It's completely dark in the room, and he can just make out her sleeping form. She's been up, she's laid a wet washcloth over her eyes like she does on those rare, rare occasions when she's hung over after some bit of festivity.
In the kitchen, Jonathan's seated himself at the table. "Mmm," he says. "Croquettes. What made you cook these up?"
Allen won't look at his son. His face flushes.
"I got this craving," he tells him, hyper-aware of everything he's saying, careful not to sound in any way strange. "Flying out here, I was thinking about salmon croquettes."
In recent months, even years, they've not been much on conversation. He sees how far, without his consciously remarking it, they've drifted apart. They eat in an amicable enough silence, though Allen focuses so much attention on the croquettes on his plate that he's surprised they don't levitate.
"Dad," Jonathan says. "You're sweating."
It nearly makes him jump.
"Hot stove," he says, wiping his brow.
"So where's Mom?"
He thinks he's going to explode. All he wants is for this to stop, but it doesn't stop.
"Your mother's not feeling well," he says.
"I figured," Jonathan admits. "She gets too many headaches these days."
This is when the conversation should occur—Allen sees the moment so clearly, the words he should somehow say, but he doesn't say them, and with each second the opportunity recedes, until a minute has passed and it is very far away.
He's not even going to try.
"I love salmon croquettes," Jonathan says. "I really do. It's so cool you made them."
Allen forces himself to watch as Jonathan cuts them into little pieces, the way he always does with his food. Closing his eyes, he savors each bite as if oblivious to everything else in the world.
There was the time he came so close to dying. 1951, fighter training, and that fall day, confident and a little bored, he'd decided to experiment with a double Immelmann. It was a stunt the instructors didn't exactly encourage, but everybody did it anyway. His plane that morning was a T-28—too slow, really, for a speed stunt, so he pushed it into a steep dive to build velocity, nothing he hadn't done dozens of times. At the top of the first double loop he pulled up, then decided he'd go for another one. He commenced that second dive and the next thing he knew he was drowsily waking up from a delicious nap. A propeller was spinning in front of him. One more instant and he realized he was aimed straight at the ground. He wasn't so much alarmed as quietly astonished—a calm feeling (he hadn't even remembered he was flying) that expanded all through him till he was enveloped in its radiant embrace. While in the meantime, completely apart from the leisurely pace of his brain, his hands urgently worked the controls.
At just under a thousand feet he pulled out. And that was it. At no point did he have any sense of danger or panic—only that astonishment. Then afterward, skimming low over Texas brush country, a tingling in his extremities, some residual electricity that danced along his nerve endings to tell him he was alive. Cumulative gravity forces, a gray-out: any number of pilots had bought the farm, as they said, on that one.
The whole thing couldn't have taken twenty seconds from start to finish.
He's washing dishes when Joan makes her appearance. She's made herself presentable—slacks, a blouse—but he can see the dishevelment still in her eyes, the tight lines around her mouth. That blouse, embroidered with colorful cactuses. He remembers the very afternoon she bought it, a Woolworth's in Las Vegas. He was stationed at Nellis then. Every detail's so clear. They bought the blouse and a goldfish they carried home in a plastic bag half full of water, and when the time came to move four months later they solemnly flushed the fish down the toilet. Nearly sixteen years: he's been inside her body, thrilling moments of nearly incomprehensible joy. She's carried his child, stayed loyally beside him through the long haul: tactical flight alerts; Edwards, where she could watch his X-100 exploits from their little house high in thehills; danger wakes with the other astronaut wives; press conferences on the front lawn; one raucous weekend at the LBJ ranch after the Gemini flight. And all these years she's managed to preserve her secret miseries intact, away from him, festering till they had no recourse but to burst.
"Hon," he says gently, trying to pack every kind of sympathy into that single word, "how're you feeling?" Desperately thinking, Say fine, and we'll both forget everything like it never happened.
Joan, for her part, says, "Fabulous," the word hard-edged but still vastly reassuring and then, as he's catching a skipped heartbeat: "I'm not going to live here anymore, Al."
It surges through him, spreading out to the farthest reaches of himself along paths and byways he never even knew were there. "This house?" he says stupidly.
She lights one of her cigarettes and takes a long, reflective puff—a woman (he's never seen it so clearly about her before) who's been worn down, lost her looks through long years of battle.
"No," she exhales along with the smoke. "Not this house. This whole thing. You have to let me go."
She says it so simply—those years at the community theater, her voice is calm and rehearsed. All he can manage is a small disbelieving laugh.
"Just like that?"
"If you only knew," she says.
"What about NASA?" It's exactly the wrong thing to ask, and he tries to backtrack the instant the words have left his mouth. "What about us? Everything we have together?"
"You'll survive," Joan says.
"We'll survive together," he reassures her. But he's trembling all over. "Like we've always done," he says. "We'll be brave in this."
But she just shakes her head.
"Please, Joan," he says. "Let's sit down. This is way too fast."
"Actually," she says, "it feels like it's taken forever."
Before he even knows what he's doing—he's never done anything like this—he's at her feet, on his knees. His arms circle round her calves as if he's tackling her, bringing her down, but he doesn't bring her down. He just kneels and clasps her. He muffles his sobs in the smooth fabric of her slacks.
"This can be as awful as you want it to be," she tells him. The calm in her voice terrifies him: a resolve she hasn't so much rehearsed as, after all these years, finally discovered.
He can't help it. The sickness under his heart surges into his throat, and before he can choke it back he's vomiting the mess of his salmon croquettes on her slacks, her shoes, the linoleum floor.
SEA OF TRANQUILLITY. Copyright © 1994 by Paul Russell. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Posted December 26, 2012
This book was not what i expected. Lots of explicit gay sex. Not a light read by any stretch of the imagination. I gave it 3 stars because the book was fairly well written. I just did not appreciate the overwhelming subject matter already mentioned above.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 8, 2005
This is the best book i've ever read.It follows the story of an astronaut Allen Cloud,his wife and there son.It tells the story of all three and how their lives change over a lifetime.But what I really enjoyed was the story of their son Johnathan.
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