Reviews / January 5, 2017
It ought to be easy to be glib about After the Bomb. A “young adult” book from the mid-’80s about nuclear war is surely bursting with pastel-clad teens exchanging Valley Girl dialogue and adjusting their melting shoulder pads in the white heat of international brinkmanship. But, reading it for the first time now (it was a U.S. release that I doubt made it to the U.K. at the time; Robert Swindell’s Brother in the Land gave us our own YA thermonuclear horror show the year before), it’s surprising how much more affecting it is compared to nominally more “important” books on the same topic. Perhaps that’s because the protagonists are the age I was myself when the terror of being vaporized or blasted into a world of rubble and corpses was at its traumatizing peak; or perhaps because in the novel’s simplicity, it renders the issue down to its bare bones: the action and landscape are limited to a few blocks from the protagonist’s home and the few people that inhabit a teenager’s life, with a narrative focusing on the small-scale to-ing and fro-ing of Phillip (“sixteen going on twelve,” as he puts it, lamenting his unmanly skinniness), the main character, as he attempts to procure medical assistance for his mother.
After the Bomb came out in 1985, the year the the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists‘ Science and Security Board set the Doomsday Clock at three minutes to twelve—the closest it had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nuclear war was no longer a hypothetical, many people thought, but something that was approaching certainty, and the book’s cover captures the strange overlap of normality and solemnity that was the air we breathed back then. Though the artwork is obviously ’80s YA and contains nothing overtly scary (apart from the title and the tagline), the abandoned bike, open door leading into darkness, and unhealthy-looking yellow sky engender an eerie feeling of foreboding and loss.
After a couple of initial chapters of scene-setting, we find geeky, awkward Phillip hiding from the frustrations of teenage life in a garden nuclear shelter, before being joined by his older brother Matt and Matt’s girlfriend Cara, who Phillip is attracted to (Matt is, of course, smooth and confident, and Phillip resents him for it). The shelter is where the teens find themselves—naturally—when the bomb goes off. When they eventually summon up the nerve, the three emerge into an unrecognizable world that redefines their priorities and their relationships with one another—and, in Phillip’s case at least, with himself.
It’s made clear practically as soon as it explodes that the titular bomb was an accident, launched accidentally by the Russians, who are immediately on the phone with the POTUS trying to make amends and begging him not to retaliate. The bomb is an “air burst,” meaning that fallout isn’t something the book’s survivors have to contend with; it’s a nuclear accident that removes any political tension from the story, leaving a reeling outside world to come slowly to the protagonist’s aid and placing the emphasis of the book’s warning against the very existence of nuclear weapons. Yet despite this conceit—forgivable in the context of a book for youngsters that must provide some hope—After the Bomb is surprisingly brutal in its depiction of post-detonation realities and the every-man-for-himself behaviors they immediately engender. (An author’s note lists the books Miklowitz read and the extensive number of experts she interviewed in order to ensure that her description of the effects of a one-megaton bomb would be as accurate as possible.)
The story, such as it is, details Philip’s attempts to move his badly burned mother to the nearby hospital and, once there, to coerce and hustle her onto one of the army choppers that are gradually airlifting casualties to safety. With her competent, unfussy prose, Miklowitz is a dab hand at conjuring up a world of simplistic yet credible teenage resentments and insecurities, which she manages to extrapolate even into the blasted hellscape the book’s world has become, and where the kids, whose biggest worries had previously been maths tests, track events, and heartache, encounter rape, looting, death, and murder. Miklowitz’s evocation of the new landscape is also singularly memorable, a nightmare suburbia of ash-filled swimming pools, smoke, and hot, moaning winds, with one motif cropping up repeatedly—corpses, human and animal, without eyes. Whether this is a deliberate reference to the blindness that has led the adult world to sleepwalk into madness is hard to say, but the imagery is disturbingly effective. The bomb also levels the field of relationships between adults and children, with the exhausted, traumatized grown-ups struggling just as much as their offspring to cope with what they now face—and some of the things the kids face are genuinely grueling and upsetting, even to an adult reader:
The woman’s mouth was open in a silent scream. Most of her clothes had been burned off. The skin on her face and arms hung loose.
“She’s in shock, won’t let go,” the nurse said. “Come on dear, let the baby go so we can help.”
The woman didn’t seem to hear or understand, and clasped her dead baby in a vise-like grip. The lifeless form resembled something overcooked. Philip turned away and began to heave.
Obviously, there’s an incongruously “progressive” aspect to the arc of Phillip’s personal growth over the story, but it’s handled intelligently and realistically: he doesn’t become a saint or lose his teenage inadequacies; he simply becomes aware that the material possessions he has lost are “just things,” and that the personality quirks that he had previously viewed as handicaps—such as his stubbornness—can in some situations work to his advantage.
Miklowitz, who died in 2015, was a prolific YA writer who published books tackling a vast range of issues, including racism, drug abuse, rape, the Israel-Palestine conflict, AIDS, cults, teenage pregnancy, sexual and physical abuse, and even a right-wing militia bent on the destruction of the U.S. government (1998’s Camouflage). It’s hard to imagine what something like After the Bomb would translate to nowadays—a 2,000-page trilogy, perhaps, with an obligatory film adaptation? (There was a sequel to After the Bomb, 1987’s Week One.) It certainly seems unlikely that a volume as slim as this, attempting to tackle such a pressing, momentous issue, would be particularly credible (or lucrative) in the publishing world of today. But its lack of pretension and its treatment of nuclear destruction as a real, physical threat, give it a directness that melts away the strata of denial and postmodern “sophistication” that has built up over the years, and makes the fear raw once again: the world really can end with the flick of a few switches. After being set back to 17 minutes to twelve in 1991, the hands of the Doomsday Clock once again stand at three minutes to midnight. We just never fucking learn, do we?
Jerry Ahern’s highly successful The Survivalist series (1981-1994) launched the post-nuclear war survivalist genre, which remained lucrative well into the 1990s (and has experienced a rebirth of sorts). Early on, a pulp arms race ensued, with each successive series attempting to one-up the competition in what would become the genre’s defining characteristics: unrelenting machismo, gratuitous violence and sex, gun and munitions fetishism, list-making, liberal-bashing, and freedom-loving of the government-hating variety.
Craig Sargent’s The Last Ranger (the first in a 10-volume series) punches all the requisite buttons, and is enjoyable in the sense that most of the genre’s output is enjoyable: the ideology behind them is so pathological that it’s impossible for me to accept them as anything but parody, despite their underlying earnestness. The books prey on the adolescent anxieties and fantasies of their overwhelmingly male readership then and now—mine included.
The story opens with our hero, Martin Stone, lying in a ditch and near death following an attack by a biker gang called the Guardians of Hell (who also violated and killed his mother and sister and blew up the family Winnebago), just one of many predatory dangers roaming the radioactive wasteland. We find out through flashback that Martin is the son of larger-than-life Army Ranger, munitions multimillionaire, and prepper extraordinaire Clayton Stone, who, after being “betrayed by his generals, his country, and his own offspring”—teenager Martin is captain of the swim team, you see, and believes that war doesn’t “create anything but more war”—had built an “immense fallout shelter” in the Colorado Rockies to preserve his ungrateful family when the bombs started dropping. Stone senior, disgusted by all forms of “ass-kissing” and “money-sucking” (although he’s rich beyond imagination), voices a perfect encapsulation of the survivalist delusion:
It seemed as if the entire world around him had joined in a conspiracy of cowardice, of dim-witted pacifism, of thinking that if one just ignored the dark side of human nature, it would go away.
Martin himself, as he bleeds and groans on the “cold dirt,” comes to repent his folly and swallow the old man’s hard reality sandwich:
For Martin had wanted to believe that everything was okay, that basically people were good and that the future would work itself out. He had been wrong.
The Native American Utes find Martin and nurse him back to health (it’s unclear why, since the Utes correctly blame the “white man” for the destruction of the world), and, after defeating their best warrior in hand-to-hand, he undergoes a peyote-fueled shamanic ritual to be “reborn… into something called a man.” When he returns to his tepee, the beautiful Ute woman (a virgin, naturally) who personally tended his wounds is waiting: “Make me… a real woman,” the young lady (Chama) says, “who has had a man take her deep within.” Thus begins one of the more outrageous sex scenes I’ve run across in the genre, with Chama’s nipples “hard and red as cherries waiting to be plucked,” with Stone “[grabbing] his pole of flesh, more rigid than he had ever felt it, and [dipping] the swollen head into the jungle of hair and moistness below,” with Chama “spreading her legs apart… to open deeper as he pushed like a miner ever farther inside her.”
When Chama reluctantly tells Martin that his sister April is still alive and being held by the Guardians of Hell as a sex slave somewhere in Denver, he returns to the shelter his father had told him never to leave (Stone senior dropped dead of a heart attack during dinner prayer shortly after delivering said warning, prompting Martin and the rest of the family to take the Winnebago for a spin). Inside the 19,789 (details are paramount in survivalist fiction) square-foot compound, Martin accesses his father’s “super-computer,” and is shocked to find a “message from the grave”: good old Clayton, à la Jor-El’s prerecorded education of Superman in the Fortress of Solitude, has collected “every bit of data I possess on warfare, fighting, siege, espionage, and every other goddamned thing a man could want to know on how to kill another man…” Clayton then bestows upon his son the title of “the Last Ranger.” Martin, having made his first kills (a couple of psychotic, misshapen albinos) en route to the mountain fortress, finally accepts his birthright, and loads all his weapons of choice onto a modified Harley 1200 Electroglide (again, specificity).
In Denver, Martin infiltrates the Guardians of Hell—led by “awesome six-foot-eleven-inch 412-pound” Rommel and cohort Queenie, who kills men “in the midst of orgasm” and is “dressed in a skintight leather outfit with portions cut out around… all her charms”—to learn the whereabouts of his sister. The Guardians eventually figure out Martin’s game, and he blows up most of what’s left of Denver trying to escape, exploding Rommel with a “Luchaire 89mm Rocket Launcher LRAC.” He raids the whorehouse in which his sister is supposed to be held, but is told that a man named “Straight Razor” has taken her “down to Pueblo,” and off Martin goes to find her.
In a book like The Last Ranger, there is almost always a sentence (or two) that makes your short investment in it worthwhile. Sargent does not disappoint. When Martin first sees Rommel (in a peculiar bar-zoo hybrid), a drunk has bumped into his (Rommel’s) chair, causing a losing craps roll. Pissed off Rommel picks the man up and heaves him “almost fifteen feet across the room,” where he lands on his head so hard that “the skull cracked right across the top like an egg”:
The drunk’s brain slurped out in a big wet lump and slid across the floor, undulating between the legs of the drinkers at the bar like some kind of sea slug searching for a cave.