By Tom Piazza
ReganBooks, 245 pp., $24.95
ou don't have to be a baby-boomer to appreciate Tom Piazza's new novel, My Cold War, but it wouldn't hurt. Just as it wouldn't hurt to be an adult child of the '50s, a lapsed Catholic of the post-Vatican-II variety, a graduate of Levittown-like suburbia, an academic at a professional crossroads, a husband inside a failing marriage, and an older brother on the trail of his lost younger brother. It wouldn't hurt, because it'd make you an awful lot like John Delano.
Delano is a popular teacher in his late 40s and a success on the lecture circuit who's on sabbatical at his small Connecticut college. But he's a Cold War specialist who's making no headway on his latest look at bomb-sheltered America -- you know, the America defined for us in the widespread, stock images you maybe grew up with and can't quite outgrow: JFK in Berlin; missiles in Cuba; JFK in Dallas; Bob Dylan in Newport; the U.S. in Vietnam; be-ins in San Francisco; the Democrats in Chicago; etc.
That book of Delano's, his "synthesis of everything [he's] been talking about for the last fifteen years" and had to defend -- "history" as the photographs we have of it as opposed to political History with a capital H -- is going nowhere, because its author is too busy fast-forwarding deep into his own history, revisiting the scenes of major meltdown inside one nuclear family in and beyond the limits of Atlanticville, Long Island.
So far, Delano has managed to escape a paranoid father who skirted the John Birch Society but couldn't skirt a series of nervous breakdowns; a mini-skirted, Beatlemaniac mom who exited her marriage when Delano's dad got to be too much and Delano was already out the door and in college; and an oversensitive brother who never could get his act together but who does land in Iowa in the company of a white-supremacist girlfriend. As for Val, Delano's labor-organizing wife, she ends up elsewhere too. And as for Delano, he winds up outside his childhood home, circling it the same way that he, his brother, and his father used to circle in their backyard's above-ground swimming pool until they could float on the current they'd created. But that book of Delano's that didn't get written? Forget it. You're reading the book that did.
This is Tom Piazza's first novel, and in it he covers new ground to add to his already award-winning career as a music writer, former columnist for The Oxford American, and short-story author (1997's well-received Blues and Trouble). Is its close capturing of time and place veiled autobiography? Does autobiography rate as history at all or as national History in the slightest? Does it matter? One of Delano's traditionalist department colleagues thinks it does. Readers needn't mind. My Cold War makes the matter moot and makes it movingly, convincingly, even if it's never quite clear what its protagonist looks like, what his last name was before he changed it, and why he insists it's pronounced De-LAY-no, not DEL-ano. A reference to the Great Depression's saving father figure but recast to reflect one father's deep depression, a son newly saved? Just guessing.
Tom Piazza will be signing My Cold War at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Tuesday, October 21st, at 7 p.m.
This coming week, the River City Writers Series welcomes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler and his wife, novelist and playwright Elizabeth Dewberry, to the University of Memphis. Butler will be conducting a fiction workshop on Tuesday, October 21st, at 4 p.m. in Patterson Hall (room 403), and both writers will be on hand for questions on Wednesday the 22nd from 9:30 to 10:45 a.m., also in Patterson (room 456). A class led by Dewberry at 12:40 p.m. will follow. And at 8 p.m. that evening, Butler and Dewberry will read from their work in the Fogelman Executive Center (room 123), with a reception and booksigning afterward. Next month, the series continues with novelist, short-story writer, and memoirist Bobbie Ann Mason, on November 18th and 19th.
All events are free and open to the public. For more information, contact the U of M Department of English at 678-2651 or Professor Cary Holladay, director of the River City Writers Series, at 678-4405. n