Shelter by Martin Asher (Arbor House: $12.95)
Was it the summer of 1966 or '67 when Murray Kempton, writing in the New Republic about the wretched world situation, suggested that there must be something we could do, as private citizens, besides going back compulsively to see "A Hard Day's Night" for the dozenth time?
Yes, even the sober-sided pundits from America's most solemn political magazines realized from the start that the Beatles were far more than a rock group; from the moment those rascally boys leapt from the train where they'd been sitting (defying rules of reality and screen convention) to pester the Establishment man in the bowler hat--"Please sir, can we have our ball back?"--the people who loved them knew that the Beatles stood for an alternate vision--indeed, they were an alternate vision. The human race could opt for fun and love, instead of blowing each other to smithereens. When John Lennon died, it was much more than murder--more, even, than assassination.
All this is not to belabor the obvious, but to restate the premise on which "Shelter" is based. "This is what happened to a man named Billy in the days before the end of the world," this book begins, and some of us may recognize Billy's affliction. He suffers--not from a lack of imagination but a surfeit of it. He sees, he knows , that the end of the world is at hand. He's a writer, but realizes that even the short story is too long for these times, and works now in the bumper-sticker form: TODAY IS THE LAST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, and ROCK 'N' ROLL IS HERE TO STAY BUT ONLY IF WE ARE, and most bitterly, BOOM.
Billy Bly is drenched in thoughts of death, and he's not the only one. His teen-age son Wyatt, would-be rocker, is bitterly nihilistic: "You, yeah, you think you're something/ You, yeah, you ain't nothing. . . . You ain't nowhere, you got no one/ You ain't nothing" is his idea of a snappy tune. Billy's younger son, Jason, collects toy fire engines, against the fire that will end the world. Sarah, Billy's wife, is at her wits' end. Her husband is impotent. Who can make love when imbeciles, powerful, omnipotent imbeciles, are planning to blow up the world.
Sarah arranges to put Billy on vitamin therapy: From her point of view there's nothing on Earth that nutrition can't cure.
Sarajevo of World War III
Billy retreats to an upstairs room in despair, with only his Beatle tapes for company; for there was no time, he thinks, that was safer and more golden in our lives than that stretch of months when the Fab Four issued their three masterpieces: "Revolver," "Rubber Soul," "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Oh! Billy mourns the past: " . . . he believed John Lennon's murder was the Sarajevo of World War III. Probably no single act could have demoralized as many people and convinced them that resistance to whatever was to come was futile. . . . "
Poor Sarah! Trying to keep living in the real world, and trying as well to shelter her children from the terrible truth of her husband's vision, she finally kicks Billy out . . . or he leaves. It isn't tenable to live together as loving families when men are building those missiles and smiling about it.
Billy takes his tapes and goes to visit a black friend, Roland, who's living out in San Francisco. Roland takes his old buddy in, sits him down with his tapes. By now Billy is sure it's all in the music: When John sings "Lend me your ears," Billy's happy to do so. When John sings "It was 20 years ago today," Billy realizes, yes, it was 20--think of it!--20 years ago today. And when John introduces "the one and only Billy Shears," Billy knows he's been chosen, perhaps to save the world.
Only a Matter of Time
It's only a matter of time until Billy, after plentiful hits of sensimilla, and coke, and vitamins, and Cabernet Sauvignon, is paid a fateful visit: " . . . he looked up and saw a figure sitting on the window sill, and there was no mistaking it, from the bright green satin uniform with red piping to the wire-rimmed glasses to the gentle sneer. John had come." Billy pours out his heart. "I love you and I miss you and I'm scared and I don't know what to do. . . . Make it like it was."
John answers, "Sure I can do that. But you've got to help. . . . " And he tells Billy to listen to the music even more: "Go back to where you once belonged!"
It depends, of course, on if you loved the Beatles, and if you even consider the notion that "love is all we need" a viable way to live. It depends on whether you believe that the end of the world is at hand. It depends on whether you have your own copy of "A Hard Day's Night" at home. It depends on whether you're one of the one-in-three that didn't get behind the Libyan bombings, whether or not you like this book. If you believe in nuclear parity and a strong America you should certainly avoid "Shelter" like fallout.
But, again, if you love the Beatles and miss them and are scared, and think it's all been downhill since 1968, buy "Shelter." Buy a stack.
Does Billy save the world? (Page 1 would suggest that he doesn't.) But he saves himself, his family, his wife, his children, his love, his friendship, his belief in the beauty of our lives and in the truth of the music. As long as each one of us can do that, the admirals and the generals and politicians can blow the world away. . . . But they can't win.