Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ronald Kidd's The Year of the Bomb

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?"

Or both?

Here, Kidd pretty firmly comes down on the latter interpretation, while following the adventures of a certain Paul, and his pals Crank, Oz, and Arnie. They're already movie buffs, having ventured into L.A. to catch matinees, and when Body Snatchers comes to their own town, they're smitten with the Klieg lights of Hollywood. They're also smitten with a young actress named Laura, after whom they lust and love. Which means -- speaking as a former 12 year old boy -- they're constantly awkward and tongue-tied in her presence.

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.

And of course, as Kidd's story ably tells us, once a state confuses healthy dissent with treason, we're all on the way to becoming Pod People, ourselves.

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.

As the publishing biz itself becomes more and more like Hollywood filmmaking, it's somewhat surprising "a book like this got made" -- as we say about studio films that still manage to, well, surprise us.

I am, however, very glad it did.


Colleen said...

I loved this one as well Mark, for all the reasons you mention here and more (the family stories are excellent as well). Fans of Ellen Klage's "Dewey" books will especially adore "Year of the Bomb" - I wish I had heard more about it last year because it really does deserve a lot of love.

david elzey said...

Wow, that looks awesome. And as a former film student I was taught that most sci-fi and monster movies of the 50s were either the fear of communism or the fear of the bomb or both.

Looks like the the TBR pile is about to get one book larger...

Ms. Yingling said...

I'll remember to take these boy perspectives into consideration when reading this. There's not a lot of historical fiction set in the 50s that goes over well, so I hope this one is as good as promised.

Carrie K said...

Ooh, this sounds really good! I'm going to order it for our library and ask our film studies teacher if he knows about it. Thanks!

Kip said...

I enjoyed this as well and it inspired me to watch the original Body Snatchers video, which is quite creepy.