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The Journey From Hiroshima to HUAC : A WALK IN THE FIRE Scenes From the Life of an American Jew, Vol. 4 by John Sanford (Black Sparrow Press: $20, cloth; $12.50, paper; 327 pp.)

July 02, 1989|Elaine Kendall | Kendall reviews regularly for View.

By Volume 4, a project that began as a wholly individualistic and thoroughly engaging account of the making of a writer, has long since picked up mass and weight from the social and political context, becoming a personal chronicle of the unmaking of a nation. Author John Sanford's phrase for the spirit of the time in which he lives is "the color of the air," dramatically conveyed by occasional vignettes of the events and personalities that forever altered the American destiny.

While the author remains the primary perceiver in these books, they soon cease to be self-centered in any ordinary sense. Though referring to oneself in the second person as "you" can be a risky literary device, it effectively creates an instant bond between reader and writer. Eventually even the distinction between singular and plural blurs, reinforcing the sense of participation in a shared odyssey. The six years recalled in this book chart the loss of innocence; not just Sanford's, but America's. Here the autobiographical form expands to become a subtle synecdoche in which the lives of Sanford and his wife Marguerite Roberts stand in for the general experience.

The opening pages are an astounding collage of prose, verse and direct quotation, an incendiary blend of language re-creating the scene at Los Alamos, N.M., in the summer of 1945 on the day the prototype of the atomic bomb was exploded. "The blast was heard in Albuquerque half the state away, and it was seen there too--seen!--by a blind girl, who cried: What was that? . . .

None of those great ones ever said

that what she'd seen without sight

was bright too on Mars and Venus;

they never informed her

of the bizarre behavior of animals,

crazed horses, speechless birds,

dogs that shivered as if freezing

though mercury stood at 100;

they never described to her

the quarter-mile crater in the sand.

she was never given to understand

that, white once, it was green now

a quarter-mile bowl of emerald glass."

The images increasing in potency, the passage describes the scientists' triumphant snake dance through their improvised quarters--singing, cheering, back-slapping, as "they made their way (in protective shoes) to where a heap of ash lay in a green glass bowl . . . thinking of the glaze they mean to put upon Japan." In these four searingly terse pages, the bomb is replicated and dropped upon its target; the survivors speak of its unearthly magnificence; the bombardier on the Enola Gay is quoted as he flies away to safety, mistaking the shock waves for anti-aircraft fire--"The sons-of-bitches are shooting at us."

The "color of the air" indelibly established, Sanford shifts to the intimate conversational tone that distinguishes the body of the book. In the short, definitive scenes that characterize his recent work, he recaptures the precise texture of daily life--two writers in the optimistic postwar years; Marguerite productive and happy at MGM; the author himself creating the uncompromising novels that would earn unstinting praise but little else. Tempered by the passage of time, the bitter disappointments of that era are described here with surprisingly gentle irony. The emphasis is kept firmly upon the satisfactions of a superb marriage and the joys of rural living.

During the period covered by this book, the Sanfords lived on a small ranch in Encino, raising the race horses Marguerite had loved since girlhood, delighting in their surroundings and in each other. The author's association with the Communist Party is discussed candidly; his efforts to reconcile his maverick individualism with the party line lends a special tension to the prose. Unlike many memoirs of this anguished period, this one remains free of apology, rationalization or self-justification.

His convictions formed by history and experience, Sanford continues to be committed long after it was safe to do so. Fury finds its way into these pages only when the insidious hysteria affects Marguerite's career, and even then, more is made of her integrity and resilience than of his rage. Throughout these six tortured and turbulent years, "A Walk in the Fire" remains an idyllic love story in which love of family, love of work and love of country illuminate and enlarge the central attachment between the Sanfords.

Though the quartet is unified by style, form and subject, the individual volumes have the narrative power to be read independently of one another. Together, they are a monumental social history of the century; separately they place a supremely responsive observer both within and at a remove from his decade. In each case, the writer's depth of field and unwavering value system create reverberations far beyond the usual limits of a single consciousness. Lyrical and often elegiac in the historical segments, fierce in commentary, Sanford's style is Protean, constantly reinvented to suit his theme.

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