Two Authors Plot a Nuclear Nightmare to Wake Up Americans
October 28, 1988. Both men remember the day in precise, even novelistic detail. At 4:20 p.m. Whitley Strieber was on a Fifth Avenue bus in Manhattan; he was chewing a Velamint and heading downtown to his home in Greenwich Village. Jim Kunetka, Whitley’s friend since childhood, was in Houston, drinking coffee with an oil baron in a private dining room atop the Exxon Building.
Whitley was close enough to the bomb that hit the Borough of Queens to be enveloped by the chalky brilliance, rocked by the blast and sent scrambling out of the bus into the bleeding crowd thronging the yellow dust-filled street. Jim was more than 200 miles away from the bomb that obliterated San Antonio. Still, the airburst lit up his companion’s face, and 10 minutes later, as Jim reached his car, a monumental boom cracked the windows on the west face of the 55-story building he had just exited.
The first limited nuclear war lasted 36 minutes. The Soviets fired first. They lost their cool when the Americans began to deploy the “Spiderweb” antimissile system, rendering the U.S.S.R. nuclear deterrent useless. What transpired in the aftermath, what happened to Jim and Whitley and the rest of the people in the United States, is recounted in Warday (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $15.95). The just published and already controversial novel is narrated by the two friends, who have much the same personal histories as the real-life authors and even share their names.
In their version of the apocalypse, novelist Strieber, 38 (best known for The Wolfen), and nonfiction writer Kunetka, 39 (author of a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer), cast themselves as a pair of journalists traveling about the U.S. in 1993, five years after Warday. They interview survivors of the catastrophe and assemble a chilling portrait of a Brave New World slapped together from the ruins of the old. “We did not want to write a book about explosions,” says Strieber. “We wanted to take people into life beyond The Day After-to wake them up in the New World of the years after.”
How authentic, how probable is the authors’ depiction? Washington, D.C. and San Antonio have been vaporized. The wind whistles through the abandoned skyscrapers of Manhattan. Six million people died on Warday. Another 70 million succumbed later from the effects of radiation, the Great Famine of 1988, the Cincinnati Flu of 1990, and from new, mysterious maladies. The remains of government are holed up in California, which virtually escaped Armageddon, and Chicanos operate out of their own ad hoc nation in Texas and New Mexico, which is underwritten by the Japanese.
Senator Ted Kennedy is a fan of Warday, as is the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame. Dr. Helen Caldicott, former president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, points out that “for the first time a book describes in fictional detail the technological consequences of a small nuclear war on the U.S.” She assures us “the details of disease and death are valid.” Other experts are not convinced. Dr. Michael Vlahos of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies calls the novel “riveting,” but finds it unduly pessimistic. “As long as a central authority is there, I don’t see a financial collapse taking place,” he says. “And I can’t see America, not under attack and with medical facilities still intact, having such a plague of diseases as described in the book.” Neither does he think famine likely, given that the nation has a decade’s worth of food and grain salted away. “The authors place an absolute dependence on the superstructure of the modern world,” he scoffs. “Without an American Express Card, they obviously don’t think life is worth living.”
The idea of contriving a book about life in a postnuclear world hit the authors two years ago over drinks at Strieber’s place in New York. The men had known each other since Catholic grade school in San Antonio. Whitley was the sort who tormented his religion teacher with mathematical proof that God did not exist, while Jim gained local renown for building a rocket that burned up his backyard. Later they roomed together at the University of Texas in Austin, where both did reporting for the Daily Texan. By the time of their reunion, Jim had written two books on nuclear subjects and Whitley, with four novels, was feeling typecast as another Stephen King. Both men were primed, without knowing it, for their coming collaboration: Jim had recently had a disturbing conversation with Edward Teller, the “father of the bomb,” which, he says, “made me face my feelings about weapons, about how the military thinks.” Whitley had read Jonathan Schell’s provocative bestseller The Fate of the Earth. “I realized that there are people who aren’t afraid to start and fight a nuclear war,” he recalls. “And it scared me to death.”
Yet what tripped the switch for them was the off-Broadway play they saw that evening, Little Shop of Horrors, an absurdist musical about a man-eating plant. “While I was sitting in the dark,” says Whitley, “the idea of people’s voices speaking to me from this future dark world came into my head.” Adds Jim: “We were synchronists. We discovered we had the same idea.” The men worked the book out that very night, talking until 3 in the morning and uncorking champagne in celebration.
Strieber stayed on in New York, and Kunetka returned to Austin. Over the next eight months, they estimate, they met no more than six times, but they spoke on the phone several times a day and regularly swapped manuscripts by air express. “A tremendous sense of urgency came over us,” says Whitley. “I sometimes worked seven days a week, 15 hours a day.” The book is an amalgam of seemingly authentic fragments, and it was Jim’s task to read thousands of government directives and work up official-looking documents about genetic mutations, euthanasia procedures, lists of industries that would be destroyed in a nuclear attack. Whitley, the humanist of the duo, took to the road. He logged some 4,000 miles, mostly by train and bus, talking to everyday folk about their lives, their aspirations and their feelings about the possibilities of a holocaust.
Given that they were principals in the book, it was only natural that Warday began to affect their own behavior. “I talked about limited nuclear war constantly,” says Jim. “My friends would say to each other, ‘Why is he always talking about this morbid subject?’ After we were really into the book, I kept wanting to shake them and say, ‘Don’t you know what could happen?’ I was as bad as a reformed smoker.”
Less seasoned than his partner, and certainly more mercurial, Whitley found that he was losing weight and developing migraine headaches—symptoms consistent with his character in the story, who was exposed to radiation. Whitley had Warday dreams and would wake up thrashing and yelling. He called San Antonio every day and talked to his brother, a law student, and his mother, and depended on the earthiness and good cheer of his wife, Anne, to keep himself from losing his equilibrium. “Sometimes,” he confesses, “I’d get to the point where I couldn’t believe the war wouldn’t start the next second. I wanted to hold my little boy—hold him and feel him and hear him talk to me. I cried after every interview I wrote. To me these were real people, talking to me, telling me about that dark wind blowing from the future.”
The winds of Warday will soon be gathering up Strieber and Kunetka and carrying them to Europe to promote the book, which has already brought each of them $200,000. While there, they expect to put the finishing touches on their research for a sequel that will render the Soviet perspective on Warday. “What we want to do,” says Whitley, “is humanize the Russians.” The two old friends are quick to say that the Warday experience has already altered, even “humanized,” them. “I really want to live—and I want my family to live,” says Whitley. “But eventually, if something did happen—if I lost Anne and Andrew—it would crush me, though I would get through. That’s the lesson Warday taught me. Everyone in the book lost something, but they’re getting through.”