November 04, 1985 12:00 PM

by Tim O’Brien

Few novels have opened with as brutal and absorbing a scene as this: It is 1995, and William Cowling, 49, is digging a bomb shelter in his Montana backyard. A child of the atomic era, he has visions of a nuclear holocaust, and as he digs, he thinks, “Signs of sanity: muscle and resolve, arms and legs and spine and willpower. I won’t quit. I’m a man of my age, and it’s an age of extraordinary jeopardy. So who’s crazy? Me? Or is it you? You poor, pitiful sheep. Listen—Kansas is on fire. What choice do I have? Just dig and dig.” O’Brien’s ending, too, is intense enough to make a reader sweat as Cowling tries to decide whether to launch the ultimate preemptive strike by killing himself and his family before the bomb can destroy them. The problem is that all books have to have a middle, and in this case, O’Brien—author of the celebrated Vietnam novel Cacciato—seems to have had trouble filling it. His flashbacks into Cowling’s youth as a draft dodger and reluctant member of the antiwar underground only drift. The one character with any substance is Sarah, the cheerleader-turned-guerrilla who sometimes scoffs at Cowling and sometimes dotes on him. Meanwhile, O’Brien accompanies the flashbacks with the by-now clichéd listing of the signal events of the ’60s and ’70s: assassinations, Vietnam battles, Watergate confrontations. These passages are excess literary baggage. What starts out as a definitive work on what it was like for a generation to grow up under the unforgiving threat of nuclear war never loses momentum entirely, but at times it’s more of a struggle than it should be to get to the end. (Knopf, $16.95)

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