Book Reviews · 12/29/2014

Fat Man and Little Boy by Mike Meginnis


Black Balloon Publishing

On August 6, 1945, the first nuclear bomb used in war destroyed Hiroshima, followed at Nagasaki three days later by the second. The first was code-named Little Boy, the second Fat Man. From this anthropomorphic nicknaming is born the pivotal conceit of Mike Meginnis’s poetically and morally luminous novel, Fat Man and Little Boy.

After a short prelude invokes the falling of the two bombs, seen from the air, their pika don, flash or brilliant light and boom, we walk through the waste of Nagasaki in the company of two Japanese soldiers until entering a bomb shelter we meet their captive:

Inside there is a fat man lying naked on his side, arms wrapped around himself, hands tucked beneath, knees pressed to gut. A candle flickers by his side. The flame leans toward him as if pulled. His hair is all burnt off, eyebrows too, and beard. His head is fuzzed with brown stubble. His body smooth and hairless like a baby’s body. Pink and pale. Soft.

In the solitude of his captivity, the newborn Fat Man “remembers. Dreams and memory devour the night, mingled beyond recognition. Half-faces and crumpled hands, footprints, coral reef.”

He sits at the center of the room, making shadow puppets in the light of his candle, pretending to be a tree. Pretending to sway in the wind. Watching his tree-shadow as he sways…
He is given to uncontrollable fits of sobbing without apparent cause, or with causes too trivial for words: the way his walrus shadow climbs the wall so that his head looms on the ceiling like an astral body. The first and last sparks of certain candles…

The arrival of his brother—the smaller bomb, but first born, and thus for a while the elder—come in search of him, sets Fat Man free:

There is recognition. There is shame at the smell of the shelter, the filth of his body.
Little Boy says, “So, you are my brother.”

It is Meginnis’s great gift in these opening scenes and throughout the novel to invoke the brothers in all their fantastical and elusive humanity with engaging simplicity and humor, as with its clarity of language the narrative involves us in their most fundamental desires and needs. Meginnis renders the environment, its desolation and recoveries, its horrors and its beauties, with equally masterful compression and precision. Here is a moment from the brothers’ early foraging—at once beautiful in its own right, evocative and resonant of the larger, more ominous situation, and essential to the development of the plot:

When they wake…wind whistles through the holes in their overnight shelter; the edges of their piled blankets flutter; there is a one dollar bill blown up against the wall as if it is a picture hung there. The wind lets up and the bill floats down to the floor. The wind picks up again and the bill climbs back up where it was. This is the greenest thing they’ve seen in days.

Pursued by the two soldiers (destined by motif to die and reappear as two policemen, and later in France, relentlessly, as two policemen again, latter-day Javerts), the brothers make their way through the ashes, death, and disfigurements that follow the bombings and those that arise in their own radioactive, fallen-out presence. As they go, they sort themselves, discovering their individual identities, negotiating their relationship, and finding their brotherhood reflected in other male pairs and brothers they encounter.

Much later in the narrative, theorizing about a set of actor twins, Fat Man says: “Imagine two men, brothers, dividing the human experience between them, to make it manageable. Each masters his share of human feeling and leaves the rest to his twin. Together, their efforts make one man, perfect and round as an unbroken circle.” His words also speak to his relationship with Little Boy, a relationship in which the division is not equal or manageable, but increasingly out of balance, as Fat Man expands and proliferates while Little Boy degrades (reflecting in part the divergent postwar fates of the Little Boy– and Fat Man–style nuclear bombs).

From the beginning, Fat Man emerges as the brother with a conscience (eventually, one might argue, the troubled conscience of his and our United States), even as with his formidable appetites and energies, he grows beyond his capacity to contain himself, while Little Boy (who cannot grow) refuses to remember, to know who he is, who they are: at first he won’t, later he can’t.

An early instance of this difference appears as they escape the soldiers:

Little Boy says, “What did you do to that soldier?”
Fat Man, incredulous: “What did I do? What did we do.”
Little Boy, blank: “What did we do?”
Fat Man doesn’t say. Doesn’t know how. They walk together.
They will walk for days. They will huddle for warmth. They will say few words. They will be brothers.

When they take shelter with a pig farmer, their presence produces heightened fecundity among the pigs, with many litters of piglets newly born and strangely adoring the brothers. The farmer slaughters a sow to celebrate the unexpected abundance (soon to be negated by tumors, malformations, and sudden deaths).

Fat Man collapses against the wall. He heaves. He says, “The way they look at us.”
“I saw it,” says Little Boy.
“They know,” says Fat Man.
“What can pigs know?”
“They see us. What we are.”
“You can’t be sure of that,” says Little Boy. But he saw it too.
The mother cooks the pork. It smells the way a burning person does.
“Do you recognize that smell?” asks Fat Man, sweating through his shirt.
“No,” lies Little Boy. “I don’t.”

The plot unfolds as a sort of fugitives’ picaresque driven by the brothers’ need to escape recognition, to gather their resources, and to survive—first as homeless wanderers in the heart of horrors they have made and continue making, then in flight to France, and ultimately to Hollywood. (Why France? “They were hardly in the war, and the food is supposed to be good,” Fat Man explains. “Does it always have to be food?” Little Boy asks, because his brother lives in a constant and “terrible hunger.” Then Fat Man expresses an uneasy hope: “I think we were put here for a reason…I think we’re supposed to help rebuild, now that the war is done.”)

In France the brothers end up working at the former Vichy internment camp at Gurs, being transformed into a hotel dedicated to peace under the direction of Rosie, an American war widow. (“The crass American willingness to build on a graveyard, to erase history,” thinks a Japanese guest. “But the cabins are beautiful.”)

At Gurs, while Little Boy regresses to infancy and continues to resist understanding, Fat Man’s conscience has new material to work with, his gentle memorializing keeping intact the artifacts and remainders of the camp’s imprisonment of Jews before their transportation from Vichy France to death camps in the east. “Do you want to know where you live or don’t you?” Fat Man demands of his brother:

“Do you care about anything but yourself? You can live and die inside your body, hard and cold and meaningless as a bomb that never went off, a yolk asleep inside a shell, or you can listen to me when I speak, hear what I’m saying, and live in other people, too, and feel for them and know them. Or you can live in ignorance. You can rest your head on the table and drool. You can be nobody if you want. You can be a vegetable…”
But Little Boy isn’t any of those things. He’s a baby. He wants to know if people scream at babies for their lack of politics. Do they shout at a yolk to make it a chicken? Little Boy is runny and yellow inside.

Later, when Little Boy has reached a sort of adolescence, though still looking nine years old, he reflects:

What do you do in a quiet room?
What can you? Alone.
The objects are innocent. They can stay that way. The knife did not mean to cut. The gun does not weep. So why should the bomb?
If you are alone, then no one is hurt. If no one is hurt, you are pure: beautiful and small.

Among the many beauties of Fat Man and Little Boy is its muted evocation of the situation of living within a destructive social, political, and material system over which one has no moral authority, let alone control. There is in Meginnis’s handling of these questions of guilt, complicity, and willful ignorance, a deep and empathetic tenderness, an invitation to us all to reflect and to recognize this situation as our own.

That this invitation includes us—readers in the U.S., reading in English almost seventy years later and beyond—is underscored when Little Boy brings to mind these visionary mutterings of Fat Man’s in what might be his sleep:

He narrates the apocalypse. “Dogs dragging their bellies,” he says, “over a junkyard.” Bees falling from the air, wings stripped. Boot treads sculpt the sand. Water in strange places—in shoes, in overturned umbrellas, in cars, in bags, in egg cartons, in fish tins, in capitols—frozen, come winter, into eccentric ice cubes.
“Bodies twisted in half, their shoes going one way, their hats in the other.” No more Jews, no more Japanese, all the blacks dead, white men perhaps an extra winter, warming themselves beneath the piled corpses of their enemies, blood igloos, all congealed, cat fur coats. “A smell you can’t get out.” The ocean swelling. Radio waves turned poison. Cups full with twitching ocular nerves. Piled teeth. “All manner of swarm.” Fumes. Horror…

“Do you want to know where you live or don’t you?” Fat Man demands of his brother, and it is clear that this question speaks also to us. When the dogged French policemen come to Gurs in their pursuit, Rosie asks Fat Man whether he’s guilty:

“Yes. But not of what they say I am.”
“What have you done?”
“My life is built on the destroyed lives of others. It’s built on death.”
“That’s all of us,” says Rosie.

Throughout Fat Man and Little Boy, Meginnis’s language is luminous and disarmingly spare, whether he is invoking a naturalist moment or a fantastical metamorphosis. Rosie reflects on the editing of a film:

It was all fades and wipes, or shots of similarly shaped things transposed on one another, so that an apple became a target, a pen became a plane, a cloud became a newspaper, a bullet a paint can, the sun a woman’s eye, a woman’s eye a firework, the firework an exploding American plane, the shrapnel confetti, peanut shells candle drippings, bunk bed dessert cart, whipped cream fire, the bombs became each other, became a tall building, the windows of the building became the eyes of the people who watched the parade, lining the streets. Everything was something else and nothing was itself.

And here, describing the transformation as a medium goes into a trance to receive the ghost that will speak through him:

Like loaded dice rolling into place, his mind finds focus. It seeks a voice, a dead man’s. The dead man is coming to him. They will meet in the middle. He will blank his mind and let it take a new shape, a new fire, burning through the fibers…
The ghost enters the medium.

Resonating beyond their anchored instants in the narrative, these passages illuminate both the book as a whole and Meginnis’s work as its medium, his most remarkable pika don, at the end as at the beginning, his brilliant flash and boom.

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Mike Meginnis has published stories in Best American Short Stories 2012, The Collagist, PANK, and many others. He contributes regularly to HTML Giant and Kill Screen, and plays collaborative text adventures at Exits Are. Meginnis earned his MFA at New Mexico State University, where he served as a managing editor of Puerto del Sol for two years. He now lives and works in Iowa City, where he operates Uncanny Valley Press with his wife, Tracy Rae Bowling. He has never seen the ocean.

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Catherine Gammon is a fiction writer and Soto Zen priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. Her novel Sorrow (Braddock Avenue Books, 2013) was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award. Her novel Isabel Out of the Rain was published in 1991 by Mercury House, and her shorter fiction has appeared in literary journals for many years. Before beginning residential training at San Francisco Zen Center, Catherine served on the faculty of the Master of Fine Arts program of the University of Pittsburgh. She is living this year in Massachusetts.