Friday, April 17, 2009

Book Review: Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow

"Uncle Sam doesn't want you in uniform, but he does want you in a suit," Agent Jones told me.
"A clown suit?" I said.  "I'm supposed to tour the Pacific with the USO, cheering up the troops?  I don't do clowns, only monsters."
"That's exactly the idea," Agent Brown said.  "Uncle Sam wants you in a monster suit.  Nick and I have to decide if you're a security risk.  We're also supposed to soften you up."
"With your fists?"
"With the news that the assignment pays ten thousand dollars."
"Ten thousand?  Jeez."
"Personally, I think you should do it out of sheer bare-assed patriotism," Agent Jones said, "especially since you're so assimilated and everything."
"To tell you the truth, we were thinking of recommending your co-star Dagover, but the Navy seems to think you're the better actor," Agent Brown said.
"The Navy knows what they're talking about," I said.
--Excerpt from Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow Syms Thorley is a B-movie actor and writer renowned for his award-winning portrayals of monsters in 1940s Hollywood.  Things are going well for Thorley:  he's got the admiration of his fans, a steady work stream, and a brilliant script he and his girlfriend cooked up that could change the face of monster movies forever.  But then the government shows up asking for his help:  they need him for a top secret project to get the Japanese to surrender.  What Thorley doesn't understand is why the need him.  What good can a B-list monster movie actor do for the government?  With this question looming overhead, Thorley soon discoveries that sometimes monsters aren't only in the movies...
Morrow's novel is a short one, but it sure packs a punch.  A merger of the edginess of pulp fiction (the literary form, not the movie) and popular media drawn into reality, Shambling Towards Hiroshima sends us on what might be the ultimate top secret adventure.  This isn't a novel that wants you to take it too seriously, though; it's a novel that is aware of the absurdity of its speculative claim and is all too prepared to capitalize on that in Morrow's writing style and characters.  There is something both subtle and outrageous about the idea of the U.S. government using real-life monsters against the Japanese, particularly now that we think of Japan in terms of Godzilla jokes or production quality.
And I think this is Shambling Towards Hiroshima's strong point.  Because it didn't take itself to seriously, I was able to set aside the little parts of me that wanted to call B.S. throughout the story.  After all, this is an alternative history, of sorts, and it proposes something that is not only outlandish, but appropriately nostalgic.  It works, too, because Thorley is an interesting character surrounded by a band of comical stereotypes who constantly add conflict to the main character's secret mission.
Morrow's style is clear and precise, with just enough comedic flare to keep things interesting.  Even though Shambling Towards Hiroshima is a short novel, I found it incredibly enjoyable from start to finish, following the exploits of Thorley as he processed everything that was going on around him and attempted to put on a damn good show.  There's something fascinating in being pulled back to the "good ole days" of science fiction television and film.  From the start, I was immediately reminded on the Sci Fi Channel back when it used to run old Japanese monster movies practically on a loop.  Those were the days, and being reminded of those nostalgic moments in childhood turned this novel into more than just another read, but something I could connect to my youth.  
If you like the occasional pulp fiction novel, or even want to read about giant monsters tearing down cities and what not, then this is certainly a novel for you.  You can find it at Tachyon Publications, a small press located in San Francisco, or pretty much anywhere you can order books from.  Give it a look!

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