I had this babysitter named Bernice who also was the postmistress of our wind swept Kansas town. My mom would drop me off at the post office which I'm pretty sure using the post office as a day care may have been against regulation, but this was small town America. Bernice was ultra-religious and obsessed with death. She had me convinced that she had a pact with GOD
that when her time came she would ascend on a cloud in the same manner as Jesus Christ.
She told me if I prayed fervently I too would receive this magnanimous non-death and get my own cloud ride to heaven.
It was only a matter of weeks later that I robbed the post office.
My first felony at 4.
Bernice was taking an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom and while she was distracted I filled my pockets with every coin from the wooden box cash register and walked the 1/4 of mile home to my house. I was building a town on the kitchen table: a church(cathedral),post office, gas station, and grocery store, all the buildings I knew existed in my rather constricted universe. My building material was these wonderful cylindrical metal pieces that I had liberated from the post office.
I was new to this criminal life and didn't realize the first place they look for you after committing a crime is at your house. Yep, I was nabbed. The adults were really excited about something. I gave them my best innocent look.
I got the waggle of the finger and the furrowed brow from Bernice. She leaned over and whispered in my ear "you just lost your cloud". Okay all the yelling and the threats had bounced off me like marshmallow bullets, but those five words started the water works, and guilt wrapped in a furry fear blanket was born.
Jack and Babette Gladney are an odd, but loving couple, with odd, hyper-intelligent children. Jack has found a niche teaching a class on Hitler at the university and Babette reads tabloids to blind people. Their lives are going well except for a gnawing, growing fear of death that starts to create cracks in the stability of their relationship and put strain on the family unit. They are afraid of death, but they are also afraid of dying last. Each wants to depart before the other. Then an airborne toxic event comes to town:
Not that one.
They are forced to evacuate their home and Jack becomes exposed to the deadly toxic cloud changing his fears from not knowing when or how he is going to die, to having a realized version of his death that starts with a kernel of fear and grows into a corn field of panic. (It is too bad he didn't know Bernice. Her cloud theory might have calmed him down.) He talks to experts. Jack thinks about what it means to be dead. "The power of the dead is that we think they see us all the time. The dead have a presence. Is there a level of energy composed solely of dead? They are also in the ground, of course, asleep and crumbling. Perhaps we are what they dream."
Babette answers an ad in the newspaper for an experimental drug that will chemically alter a person's perception of death. It will make you forget you are going to die. She starts to experience memory loss and erratic behavior. Jack keeps asking questions and the kids keep wanting answers and finally she confesses. This is the moment in the book where Delillo gives me a solid punch to the kidneys. Babette's level of betrayal, which also adds more strings to the plot, was so unexpected I just didn't see it coming. Once Jack learns the truth about the pills, even knowing the side effects, he wants those pills. He wants to forget. He finds a pill and takes it to his friend Winnie to be analysed. She tells him it is a remarkable piece of engineering, but...."I think what you do, Jack, is forget the medicine in the tablet. There is no medicine, obviously."
She was right. They were all right. Go on with my life, raise my kids, teach my students.
"I'm still sad, Winnie, but you've given my sadness a richness and depth it has never known before."
She turned away, blushing.
I said, "You're more than a fair-weather friend--you're a true enemy."
She turned exceedingly red.
I said, "Brilliant people never think of the lives they smash, being brilliant."
Jack lurches onward after the magic pill and becomes more and more unstable as he spends more and more time in his own mind obsessed about a future death rather than living in the present.
The dialogue between the Gladney family is worth the price of admission to the book. The kids are intently searching for truths and the adults are desperately trying to sidestep the truth. I could have added 50 great one liners to this review, but part of the reason I don't watch comedic movies is the trailers always give away the best lines. I vacillated on the scoring for this book. I was at 3 stars about half way through the book then jumped to five stars. I went to bed thinking four stars. I woke up this morning and have decided, for now, to stick with five stars. The book is full of little gems, pockets of philosophy that left me with lingering doubts about my own beliefs. Understanding a character like Jack goes a long way towards understanding...well everything. I adore my mind and at the same time I fear it. I don't want it to turn on me because frankly it knows too much about me. "That's what it all comes down to in the end," he said. "A person spends his life saying good-bye to other people. How does he say good-bye to himself?"