The Fictioning

Wednesday, September 10th, 2003


My Cold War


Don't Know Much About His Story

A review by Anna Godbersen

The history of the second half of the twentieth is the story of its surfaces — or so says John Delano, the narrator of Tom Piazza's first novel. Delano is a professor of "Cold War Studies" (a field he invented himself) who examines the big images and "iconic moments" of post-war Americana. These would be such familiar events as the JFK assassination, the photographing of a naked Vietnamese girl escaping a napalm attack, Dylan going electric. Although his methods are occasionally derided as "antihistory" or "History McNuggets," they have also won him a prestigious university position, a certain kind of fame, and a pretty advance on what may be his definitive book. But when he tries to write John Delano's Cold War, he comes down with a nasty case of writer's block. His narration lapses into memoir mode as he recollects his childhood in Atlanticville, Long Island. He starts to question his project, his career, and the emptiness of his relationships with others. With his life in crisis, he sets out for the heart of America, ostensibly to find his estranged brother, but also to see if there is anything below the surfaces of History.

Piazza is a cool, careful writer, and the first half of My Cold War feels like a found object from another era. The flashback scenes of weird Cold War family life — the Levittown-style suburbs, the highballs, the door-to-door salesman, the glowing tube — are pitch-perfect. He teases out the themes of paranoia and alienation with a deft touch, and his book begins brainy and engaging. But as it wore on I couldn't help but make the DeLillo comparison, and My Cold War does not wear this comparison well. John Delano's ideas seem obvious next to the grandly bizarre academic performance of White Noise's Jack Gladney; his childhood memories seem toothless next to the alienation and paranoia evoked in Libra. In the end, Piazza's book feels schematic, like a novel trying a bit too hard to be a novel of ideas.

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