Book reviews are supposed to be objective, but are they ever, really? I read a book and tell you how it works, either in the vacuum of its own terms, or in conversation with other, similar books, and my vocabulary or my confidence or your willingness to believe will determine whether my opinion on the matter is worthwhile. But then I’m a human being with biases and blind spots, or maybe I was given the book with the understanding that a good review would net me something, personally, or maybe the person who wrote the book is my mortal enemy, or maybe the person who wrote the book is a good friend of mine—which is the case with this book, Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People, by Jim Nelson.
But lets step aside for one moment more. Recently, at a bar with some writer friends, we were talking about reviews, the dearth of negative reviews, and how the coziness amongst writers who moonlight as critics is bad for the field. I think it’s a fair point, but then, I don’t know. The bar in question, Duffy’s, in Chico, CA, is an artists haven. Behind the bar is Lisa Valentine, or Aubrey Debauchery, and sitting at the bar is Tom Gascoyne, a local muckraking journalist, or Roger Montalbano, who played the dad in August: Osage County at the Southside Theater with a wistful reserve that made the heart clench a little. That is, if you’re interested in the arts or culture in Chico, you’ll recognize most everyone in Duffy’s on a given weekday night. It feels like a community in and of itself, of people who do a thing for the love of it, with passion and care and for the community; there is something incredibly local about a place like Duffy’s. These are our artists and these are our musicians and they serve us beer and buy groceries at the same places we do. Does the “Locavore” movement extend to art? Is your local farm with its cage free chickens and organic vegetables and humanely butchered goats really the best, or is your passion for it based on proximity and the direct impact on your own life? Is Montalbano a better actor than Bogart, or was his turn in Casablanca meaningful because his tough, honest performance was the backdrop to a great weeknight date with your wife?
My position is that with no shortage of media on which to spend our attention, the purpose of a review is to call attention to that for which you have a special love or passion. Do we need to tear apart a bad piece of art in a world in which to be ignored is the worst possible outcome? No, let us sing praises for those works which are good and true.
And so let me bring your attention to Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People.
We begin in 1983, Reagan’s America. It’s the year the the Star Wars trilogy reaches its conclusion, and its the year that we, tired of Mutually Assured Destruction as a national defense policy, decided to put super smart laser satellites in space to protect us. Yes. This detail is not insignificant to our hero, Gene, because his dad just happens to work at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which was the epicenter for Cold War research, and would take on the challenge of making Reagan’s sci-fi fantasies come to true. Livermore is your typical dreary suburb, and its teenagers exist in your typical post-War American malaise, except their parents all happen to be genius physicists with maybe the fate of the world in their hands.
Which is where we find Gene, our narrator, a smart-assed slacker who riffs on Holden Caulfield early on: “Psychoanalyze me all you want… I talk to myself when I’m alone. Sometimes I talk to imaginary friends, which isn’t quite the same thing. I want to kill my father and have sex with my mother, et cetera. Tell me what you want to hear and I’ll tell it to you.” And then: “When I was young, I blamed my parents for my apathy. It seemed the fashionable thing to do.” Gene is a classic American yuckster, speaking out of the side of his mouth, confiding in you all the bullshit and absurdity of the world but hoping that maybe you’ll convince him otherwise, give him something worth believing in.
And he falls in love, of course (because to grow, we must be broken-hearted, and this is a coming of age story, through and through), with Gwen, a goth-punk whose volatility breaks through Gene’s malaise. In one of the books funniest scenes, the two apathetic rebels stage a sit-in protest for the lack of school pride at their High School. But it’s not a throwaway scene: in this novel, every scene illuminates, tells a joke, develops characters, and moves the plot forward, and big changes for Gene and Gwen hinge on that protest and its repercussions. But the broader and more subtle work being done in that scene is what makes Nelson’s book so effective and moving: Gene and Gwen are children of Baby-Boomers who decades before put flowers in their hair and “changed the world” and continued to congratulate themselves for doing so and who all of a sudden became middle management protecting the status quo they now had a vested interest in. The myth of the 1960’s crumbles before our teenage protagonists as their parents, one time hippies, now actively work to develop a weapon system that could potentially destroy the world in order to protect it against an increasingly abstract and meaningless political philosophy. For suburban teenagers seeking meaning and truth, this disillusion is powerful, and their ability (or inability) to deal with this reality, with the nature of the world, will determine their fate.
Which is to say that this novel—funny, full of heart—is at its core a bittersweet awakening. Like any great, effective work of art, we are excited, and overjoyed, we laugh, and we are quietly devastated, because we can recognize in Nelson’s characters, their decisions, their lives, our own mistakes and regrets, and we remember the moment that the world we thought we knew—the world we thought we were going to live in—disappeared forever. It’s a moving story, sneakily so, behind its humor and absurdity.
So read the book. Have you ever been disappointed when an artist tries to move you and make you laugh, and does so with grace and wisdom and honesty? This is a book for those of us who like to be told a story, a story that makes time stretch and disappear during the telling, a story that makes the colors of the world a little more vibrant when it is through.