Shambling Towards Hiroshima (Book Review)

Shambling Towards Hiroshima cover

Shambling Towards Hiroshima

Shambling Towards Hiroshima has a hell of a high concept: In the final days of World War II, B-movie actor Syms Thorley discovers that the U.S. has been developing a terrifying new weapon: Monstrous, fire-breathing lizards strong enough to destroy entire cities. Horrified at the thought of the civilian casualties this will cause, Thorley agrees to help the army in a last-ditch effort to end the war without super-weapons. Thorley will wear a rubber suit and pose as a dwarf version of these monsters, so the U.S. can demonstrate their destructive potential to Japanese emissaries. If Thorley is convincing enough as a miniature monster, he just might convince them to surrender before millions of people are killed. Thus begins the highest-stakes monster movie of all time.

 

It’s a fun story idea, and James Morrow is an excellent author. With his gift for fluid dialog and perfectly-worded metaphors, the book (at a slight 170 pages) flies by. However, the elements never coalesce into a great work.

Part of the problem is that Morrow’s precise prose is at odds with the narrative hook: This story is supposed to be written by the protagonist Thorley, looking back on his life and hinting that he might commit suicide as soon as he is done narrating this story. I can’t reconcile the writing style with the idea of a first draft dashed off overnight by an old man drinking in his hotel room. Each chapter starts with a scene in that “present day” that hints at a scattered, unreliable narrator, but by mid-book it seems more gimmicky than effective.

Fortunately, the B-movie elements work well. I was concerned at first, when Thorley’s introduction to his career mashes up so many ridiculous-sounding elements that I suspected the book was either over-eager to prove its B-movie bonafides or treating the whole concept like a one-note joke. But as the novel goes on, it deftly weaves together a history and culture that includes enough real-world personalities that I couldn’t tell you where the fiction begins. And Thorley’s descriptions of the individuals who come by his present-day hotel room paint a loving picture of the culture: These random people may not be obsessed with B-movies or treat him like a celebrity, but they’ve all experienced the simple pleasures of his movies at some point in their life. There is a lot of heart in this depiction of the role monster movies have played in American culture.

Shambling Towards Hiroshima is also a satire. Or, at least, the publisher is eager to convince you that it is. The book opens with three pages of critical raves for Morrow and his work, repeating variations of the phrase “America’s best satirist”. However, Thorley’s snarky comebacks to the military personnel he is working with are generally at the level of a Hawkeye Pierce-lite. As the absurdity builds, to the point where a gay director is flamboyantly leading in an entire orchestra to score a monstrous rampage while an erstwhile menacing General sputters about security clearances, I found myself thinking that M*A*S*H could have done it better.

Using a Godzilla-type monster as a metaphor for the atomic bomb is not a bad idea, but that shouldn’t be surprising: Godzilla was a metaphor for the atomic bomb! The book’s only original twist is in changing which force of destruction was created first. The moral is similarly half thought-through. Morrow makes an impassioned statement that the bombing of Japan was a horrible act, but that’s not really something that anyone questions. The question isn’t whether it was bad, but whether it was the lesser evil. And while I personally agree with Morrow’s point of view, he never actually addresses the points that the people who disagree with him would raise.

The closing of the book shows how this brush with weapons of mass destruction took a mental toll even on these people who were loosely involved with it. Though the ridiculous B-movie plot that made up the majority of the book did little to make me feel invested in the characters, Morrow’s skill with words is still enough to make this section unexpectedly affecting. In this, Shambling Towards Hiroshima has a lot in common with the B-movies that provided its inspiration: The messy, overly ambitious plans often fall short of their mark, but when they succeed, they provide a very pure sort of pleasure.

Grade: B-

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