SHAMBLING TOWARDS HIROSHIMA
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
James Morrow turns his satirical wit on Hollywood in Shambling Towards Hiroshima, a secret history about the other superweapons the Americans developed during World War II. Morrow reveals that while the more famous Manhattan Project was attempting to unlock the power of the atom, the New Amsterdam Project was working in a dry lakebed to develop a reptilian creature that would be able to destroy Japanese cities. Into this absurdist notion, horror actor Syms Thorley finds himself dragged against his better judgment.
The story is told from Thorley's point of view in 1984, nearly forty years after the event and as he contemplates committing suicide shortly after winning a lifetime achievement award for his work in low-budget horror films. In the form of a suicide note, Thorley describes his career in horror films through World War II and how he was brought into a strange plot by the military against his will. Wanting to demonstrate the power of the breed of fire-breeding lizards they'd developed, the military found that there were problems. To rectify them, they built a lizard suit for Thorley to wear as he destroyed a miniature Japanese village.
The plot requires an enormous amount of suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, but Morrow's writing and Thorley's character are both engaging enough that the reader is more than willing to provide whatever suspension is required. Although absurdist in nature, the novel never takes on the trappings or style of a humorous novel, although doing so would have been easy for Morrow. In fact, following a light-hearted beginning to the novel, events turn more serious, both personally and militarily. Thorley finds himself held captive by his professional rival/co-star, Siegfried Dagover, who has discovered the monster costume and is convinced that Thorley is trying to create a new horror franchise. The Japanese reaction to the demonstration is not what was expected and the government elects to go the nuclear route rather than the monster route.
Thorley's role in the entire episode is such that it brings humanizing face to the destruction wrought by weapons of mass destruction, whether nuclear, poisonous, or biological in nature. Furthermore, Morrow makes it clear that although Thorley was never responsible for any of the destruction caused by the war, the lizards, or the nuclear bomb, he carried guilt about his role, no matter how coerced, throughout the rest of his life, eventually leading to his thoughts of suicide
Although mostly told in flashback, Morrow is careful to incorporate real-time sequences showing the suicidal Thorley interacting with a young hooker who knocks on his door accidentally and a young room service delivery boy whose early life had been filled with Thorley's films as he watched them with his father. Thorley's interactions with both of these characters was positive, just as Thorley demonstrates having positive interactions even as he was working on the military project in the 1940s. Nevertheless, the good that Thorley did throughout his life must, in his own mind, take a backseat to his role in destruction.
Shambling Towards Hiroshima is the type of novel which seems almost innocuous when it is first read, but as the reader gains more distance from it, the character, situations, and messages the author has included keep springing to mind, making the reader think about this black comedy about genetically engineered lizards (and Hollywood actors in lizard costumes) rampaging through Japan during World War II long after the book hs been returned to the shelf.
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