Ronald Kidd's The Year of the Bomb is a book I wish I'd thought of. I don't say that about many books. I don't particularly wish I'd thought of Harry Potter, for example (though it could be fun living in a Scottish castle, if you could keep the thing reasonably temperate), since it's different than what I write. But Kidd's "Bomb" is a very unusual stew of politics, film iconography, history and California specificity -- all in a terrific cautionary tale about what happens when we let fear dictate laws and policy.
It's the kind of blend I've attempted to go after in my own writing, but was here duly impressed with the easygoing way Kidd mixes his elements: In the mid-50's. a group of 12(ish) year olds are watching a film being shot in their home town of Sierra Madre, California: The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel, and staring Kevin McCarthy. Based on Jack Finney's cautionary tale about pod people taking over "real" personalities, it's been remade several times, though the original served as a kind of postwar Rorschach test: Was it about the perceived threat of "Communist" conformity we were allegedly fending off from the East? (Before all our factories were located there) Or was the story about Americans giving up their own "free will" in the face of Senator Joe McCarthy's paranoid investigations of "domestic enemies?"
Kidd also brings legendary physicist Richard Feynman into the plot. Feynman lived nearby, and taught at Caltech in Pasadena. In his pre-Nobel Prize days, he was also briefly suspected of potentially being a spy, primarily because he expressed well-founded regrets on having helped develop the atomic bomb.
This is just one of the realizations Paul has in this coming of age -- hitting that age while simultaneously wishing he could be a grown up (in his pursuit of Laura), while also realizing grown-ups are much less sure of themselves, or life's "answers," than they let on.
But aside from its necessary and timely themes, the book's pleasures also rest in the deft blend of real characters with fictional ones, and its assured sense of place (SoCal of the era is vividly recreated), along with its knowledgeable grounding of movie making, and what sets and sound stages are like.
I am, however, very glad it did.
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