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Tim O’Brien: The Nuclear Age

The opening sentence is Am I crazy? and this is the question that O’Brien puts to us. Is William Cowling, hero of this novel, who is digging a nuclear fallout shelter in 1995, crazy or is he right? He started his paranoia as a child in 1958, when, using a table tennis table and pencils he had stolen from school (as he thought they contained lead), he had set up a rudimentary fallout shelter in his family’s basement. Once he gets to college – Peverson State – he starts protesting against the bomb but soon find himself caught up in a very radical group, inevitably spurred on by his love for Sarah, the leader of the group. The group gets more violent, stealing military weapons and then, to Cowling’s horror, goes after a live nuclear warhead. After going on the run, he gets out and makes his money in uranium, gets his token blonde airline stewardess and smart kid and then starts his paranoia. His wife and daughter do not want to have anything to do with his fallout shelter so he kidnaps them, believing he is acting for their greater good. So is Cowling mad or are we mad? Readers will have their own ideas but critics were generally not too impressed with this novel, after Going After Cacciato but, while not up to the standard of its predecessor, it is still a fine novel that is worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 1985 by Knopf