The Morning News Tournament of Books, sponsored by Powell’s Books, is an annual battle royale amongst the top novels in “literary fiction” published throughout the year. Read more about this year’s tournament »
Half of a Yellow Sunby CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE
The Roadby CORMAC McCARTHY
WARNER: All right, they’ve worn me down. Based on its steady march through the field and the judges’ glowing (no post-apocalyptic nuclear radiation pun intended) reviews, I’m going to read The Road. I’ve been reluctant, though, because it sounds reminiscent of one of the seminal events in my life, an event that permanently altered my worldview.
That event? Watching the original airing of The Day After on television in fall of 1983. For those who have forgotten, or are too young to remember, The Day After was a hugely hyped, fairly groundbreaking (for television) film that saw Steve Guttenberg doing his best, and perhaps only, dramatic work. It’s set in Kansas immediately before and in the days following a nuclear event. In a U.S./U.S.S.R showdown, the trigger fingers get itchier and itchier until both sides engage in what the W.O.P.R. in WarGames would describe as Global Thermonuclear War.
The majority of the film is the aftermath of several detonations on a rural part of Kansas where we see the slow progression of radiation poisoning take down everyone from John Lithgow to JoBeth Williams to Jason Robards (all-star cast).
I was 13, exactly the wrong age to watch this film alone upstairs while my parents held a seasonal cocktail party downstairs. The wrong age because I was old enough to get that this shit was really possible and really fucking scary, but not old enough to process it in any kind of rational way. I experienced it, but couldn’t understand it.
In fact, if one were to ask me how I came to hold my present, generally liberal, political sensibilities, I could point to seeing that movie as a formative experience. It made me terrified of war, definitely a member of the maybe not never, but for sure a very last resort, camp. I couldn’t imagine that anyone could embrace the idea that exchanging nukes would be a good idea under any circumstances.
What most concerns me about our present administration is that I feel as though they don’t find the idea abhorrent. That in fact, it’s something that’s in play. Maybe the Cheney we perceive is caricature, but he feels like a guy who has his finger near the trigger. I wouldn’t want the trigger in the same state as me. Apparently Cormac McCarthy is the kind of guy who can imagine a post-trigger-pulled world. I certainly wouldn’t want to spend time writing that, and I’m not sure I want to spend time reading it, but dammit if they haven’t convinced me.
Due to the miracle of Netflix I recently re-watched The Day After. It’s not nearly as frightening now, mostly because 1983 makeup technology looks pretty cheesy now and seriously: Guttenberg in a dramatic role?
GUILFOILE: Who holds back the electric car? / Who made Steve Guttenberg a star?
It’s funny but I watched The Day After under similar circumstances, alone in my room while my parents were watching Murder She Wrote or some British sitcom on PBS. It freaked me out too. But I wonder if The Road would have had the same kind of resonance then as it does now. Or if it even could have been written. Back then, the most profound statements about nuclear apocalypse were being made on Kansas album covers. I think we’re better equipped to reflect on our anxiety about post-apocalypses of varying kinds.
In the meantime, over in the Book Bloggers’ Office Pool, Condalmo falters as Half of a Yellow Sunhis pick to go all the waygoes down. Powells’s Brockman vaults into the lead with his championing of The Road, and Shaken and Stirred also makes a move out of last place into fourth. With everyone dead in the next match (no bracket has either Against the Day or One Good Turn advancing), we wait for the Zombie Round to see who the real contenders will be in the finals.