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America's Children

The Economist Review

Prometheus Unbound  THE ECONOMIST  “America’s Children” James Thackara 

It is rare in any novel that characters debate the fate of mankind without an ounce of pretension. Yet the protagonist of “America’s Children” reflects on the future of his species as a matter of obligation, not least because he helped to determine it.

James Thackara’s trenchant debut novel, which was brought out for the first time in America last year after the success of “The Book of Kings” (Overlook Press, 1999) and is now being republished in Britain after 19 years, dramatises the career of J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose reluctant acceptance of a secret military research post leads him to establish a laboratory in desolate Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1943. More than one avenue proves a dismal dead-end, and the physicists’ search for the ultimate weapon - conducted in feverish haste, as every day lost sacrifices thousands of lives to Hitler - seems a huge waste of money to the army that is backing the project. A genius who feels “fear, almost hatred, in the presence of a common mind”, Oppenheimer is torn between lust for scientific achievement and horror at prospective success.

Mr. Thackara’s chilling descriptions of the first A-bomb test at Trinity, the bombing of Hiroshima and the tests of the hydrogen bomb - the development of which Oppenheimer fiercely opposed - are terrific. He also captures the ignominy of a McCarthy-era Congress, which questioned the patriotism of a man who took on such an onerous moral burden for this country and which ultimately yanked Oppenheimer’s security clearance because of his youthful communist idealism in the 1930s.

Meticulous historical accuracy about this meeting and that acquaintance can impede narrative flow in a novel. And Mr. Thackara’s grand biblical cadence, while it imparts a suitable majesty to his prose, keeps this complicated protagonist fictionally remote, and ultimately unknowable.

Nevertheless, now that post-cold-war optimism about a new world order has ebbed, the nuclear weapons what are at the core of !”America’s Chbildren” bring to mind Gerry Adams’ notorious observation about the IRA after the celebrated Good Friday Agreement: “They haven’t gone away, you know”. As Iraq and North Korea scramble for this unholy frail, Oppenheimer’s anguish feels depressingly contemporary. 

© The Economist Newspaper Ltd, London
March 8th 2003

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