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Fiction

June 29, 1986|Paul Dean

HIROSHIMA JOE by Martin Booth (Atlantic Monthly: $17.95). Hiroshima Joe Sandingham's life had been a hapless tumble. By his own thoughts: "He was not good. He wanted to be, but he couldn't be. He had let people down. Himself, too. He smoked opium and was addicted to it. He drank too much, and that was also necessary to him. He stole. He had killed. He lustfully desired men. . . . " Then Sandingham's existence really becomes a dreg. He murders again and steals some more, and the only love of this sick outcast is that of a dockyard whore. Their sad affinity is that neither will or can escape the erosions of Hong Kong.

Booth brilliantly builds the other prisons that drove sensitive Capt. Sandingham to the decrepitude of Hiroshima Joe. There was the sateen trap of his public school beginnings and the British gentility and mentality that misdirects, even cancels reality. Then comes the cage of World War II, the deaths of lovers, soul-staining imprisonment by the Japanese. Sandingham's irreversible cataclysm, however, is watching bodies melted to grayish-brown slush and seeing babies blown into sidewalk etchings by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Now he knows there is no sanity. There is no purpose. Therefore, there can be no Joseph Sandingham--only Hiroshima Joe. Wasted. Bonkers. Mok tau . Unable to go home because of what he has seen, yet incapable of remaining where he was because of what he feared.

Whether Joe Sandingham was a loser for not fighting free of himself and his experiences, or the strongest of men for having survived everything so far, is an assessment left to readers' values. So is the amorality of Hiroshima Joe.

Oddly, this is far from a depressing book. For within all the muck, there are glimmers of what Sandingham was and what he just might recover. Between the acts of brutality are Joe's tiny gambits of self-preservation, and each one becomes our victory. Even in the pits, Joe shows an irrefutable belief that life may readjust pride but can never destroy it--not as long as visions, dreams and remembrances remain whole.

This British best-seller has been praised by London's literary Big Three (The Times, Daily Telegraph, Observer); as an astute portrait of an anti-hero, its power is classic, undeniable, and a thoughtful perturbation.

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