Philip Wylie, 1963
It is a few years after the end of John F. Kennedy's second term, and
those no-good Soviets have nuked the US. Instead of the few dozen 100-kiloton
A-bombs of Tomorrow!, they've used several thousand
20-megaton H-bombs, followed by sodium and cobalt bombs that have left North America
as lifeless as the moon. America has retaliated with its own arsenal, of course,
and Europe and Asia are now similarly uninhabitable. Thus far, the scenario is
identical to that in On the Beach. But in Wylie's
world, the radioactivity helpfully stays north of the equator. The Soviets wouldn't
have it any other way: it turns out that their plan was to shelter 100,000 of their
top citizens deep underground, deliberately nuke every other nuclear power in the
world, and then emerge a few years later with a few hundred remaining nuclear weapons
and take over the surviving Southern Hemisphere. This leaves two questions:
1) Four American nuclear submarines and an aircraft carrier have survived World War III.
Will they be able to successfully execute Operation Last Ditch, locating the secret
underground Soviet bases and nuking them?
2) An eccentric billionaire has built a shelter of his own deep within a mountain in
Connecticut. While all other shelters in the US quickly fail, this one has years'
worth of air and food for up to sixteen people, not to mention ample entertainment
including a skating rink and swimming pool. When the air raid sirens go off, the
billionaire rounded up everyone on his estate and hustled them into the shelter.
So down in the shelter with him are his wife, his butler, his gardener's son, his
future son-in-law, the meter reader, and an eminent physicist who happened to be
visiting. Also down in the shelter with him are:
- his daughter, "exceedingly beautiful," "a coppery-haired blonde" with an "angel
- his butler's daughter, "a lovely Negress," "tall, tawny-skinned, lithe," a "very
beautiful colored girl" with "the body of a leopard, golden-brown, and just that
taut, that alive" — "You should see her in a bathing suit!";
- and another visitor, an "exquisitely made oriental girl," "one of the loveliest
women on earth," "beautiful as water liles."
These three nubile young ladies are down in a shelter with no fewer than five eligible
bachelors! One is already engaged, and the other two will surely choose boyfriends!
And yet with the entire Northern Hemisphere intensely radioactive and the Southern
Hemisphere in disarray, it seems unlikely that these survivors will be joined any time
soon by anyone authorized to conduct a wedding ceremony! Will they "practice being
married" and thereby "lose face"? The annihilation of half the planet raises a lot
of questions, but the most important is this: What will happen to these three
Triumph is in many ways a rehash of Tomorrow!; as the latter book's
vision of an America cleaned up and reinvigorated by having dozens of atomic bombs
dropped on it quickly became obsolete in the face of arsenals capable of turning
the earth into a barren, radioactive rock, Wylie had to update. But for all its
faults, Tomorrow! was structurally pretty sound. It set up a number of
plot threads that were interesting enough for a 1950s melodrama — will
Lenore choose Chuck or Kit? will the fact that her dad has run afoul of the mob
affect her decision? will Kit's mother successfully undermine the civil defense
program? — and then shook everything up by dropping an A-bomb on everyone
midway through the book. Triumph, by contrast, is structurally suspect.
In the first forty-eight pages Wylie knocks off a couple billion people... and
then we just sit and wait for two hundred pages. Reading about these people
living in an underground bunker for two years is— well, it's about as
interesting as living in an underground bunker for two years. It's easy to
think of plot threads that might spring up in this kind of situation. Maybe
competing factions spring up about whether to let in outside air and trust that
the engines will scrub out the radioactivity. Maybe someone becomes disruptive
and the rest of the group has to figure out how to deal with him. But Wylie
isn't having any of it. "No, no!" I can hear him shout. "They all get along.
They all pitch in. They all agree about everything." There is some handwringing
about the aforementioned vaginas, but it turns out to be nothing to worry about,
because again, everyone in the shelter agrees about everything, and that includes
the nubile trio agreeing with the patriarchs about the inviolability of said vaginas.
Literature is generally about conflict of some sort, and it is so conspicuous by its
absence in the bunker that I have to assume that Wylie was making a point. But if
so, it's a point that makes for a bad book.
The article that introduced me to Triumph said that it was essentially
Wylie's atonement for Tomorrow! — that here he'd written this book
all about how civil defense should be the uppermost priority of the United States,
and had come to realize that he was 100% wrong, that civil defense was useless.
This is true, so far as it goes. While his dramatis personae do survive the
nuclear war, Wylie admits that building shelters is not a practicable scheme:
by Wylie's reckoning, it takes $10 million per person in 1963 dollars to provide
someone a reasonable chance of living long enough to be rescued by the Australians.
But otherwise he hasn't learned a thing. One of the major themes of Tomorrow!
is that we should have conquered the Soviet Union at the end of World War II; now
it's ten years later, and the US won't be able to destroy the Soviets without
suffering several dozen A-bomb hits. But we should still do it. One of the
major themes of Triumph, on the other hand — in addition to "won't
somebody think of the vaginas?" — is that we should have conquered the Soviet
Union at the end of World War II, and now it's twenty years later and the US won't
be able to destroy the Soviets without the entire Northern Hemisphere turning into a
wasteland of hot isotopes. But we should still do it. Oh yes. For yes,
though it comes "at the cost of half a world and of the vast majority of people
who once called themselves free and civilized," "the doctrines of Marx, Engels,
Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Merov, and Grovsky were finally undone." Wylie says
over and over that "a truly 'believing' Soviet group, a group actually
all-out Marxist-Leninist, does take the theoretical viewpoint that the world
has to become all-Red" and that that logic dictates that inevitably
the USSR, incapable of conquering the world as it stands, will nuke most of
it in order to conquer the remaining scrap and declare victory. But don't blame
the bomb! The bomb is yor frend! It is the H-bomb that allows the US subs to
polish off the remnants of the Soviet Union — and while that doesn't help
our heroes in the shelter any, what does save their lives is that Australia
develops hydrogen bombs and, vowing "to keep them as a perpetual guarantee
that nobody, ever, hereafter, will try to set up any new orders, soviet system,
or tyranny of whatever sort," finally feels safe in coming to their rescue. To
Wylie, the good guys missed their chance to establish heaven on earth the first
time they had a monopoly on nukes, and the only solution is to, one way or
another, reachieve that nuclear monopoly. Now that Australia is the only
country with the H-bomb, the new Golden Age can begin. Because who ever heard
Now that World War III is over, "men are to become free and equal, from now on
in. Without race differences. Took the extermination of half the world to
bring it about. Worth it, though, perhaps, eh?" Ah, yes, race differences.
Remember, for his time, Wylie was a liberal. In 1963, it was quite a radical
move to populate his bunker with a "League of Nations," "a rather mixed bunch"
who are "as near to being one as if we were all brothers and sisters"
(specifically, brothers and sisters who spend an inordinate amount of time
worrying about whether their other sisters are letting their other brothers
into their vaginas). So, yes, especially given that at the end of the novel
Wylie hits his readers over the head with the message that these survivors
ARE America, bravo for making them an ethnically diverse group. The problem
is that Wylie seems to be under the impression that making a character non-white
is all he needs to do to establish him or her as an individual. Here is a list
of all the characters in the shelter along with an exhaustive analysis of the
personality Wylie has given each one:
- Vance Farr: older, rich, pretty smart, nice
- Valerie Farr: older, beautiful, initially alcoholic but then not, nice
- Paulus Davey, the butler: old, religious, submissive, "colored," nice
- Ben Bernman, the physicist: ugly, very smart, Jewish, nice
- Faith Farr: young, beautiful, nice
- Connie Davey: young, beautiful, smart, "colored," nice
- Lotus "Lodi" Li: young, beautiful, smart, Chinese, nice
- Kit Barlow, Faith's fiancé: young, macho, nice
- George Hyama, the gardener's son: young, very smart, Japanese, nice
- Angelica Ross, Vance's former mistress: beautiful, Irish-Italian, nice
- Alberto Rizzo, Angelica's former lover: macho, Italian, nice
- Dick: a child, nice
- Dottie: a child, nice
- Pete Williams, the meter reader: nice
I cannot count the number of times Connie is referred to as "the colored
girl," or Lodi is called "the Chinese girl," or George is called "the young
Japanese," or a sentence about one of the two Asian characters chimes in, "The
inky, oriental eyes gleamed." Every time Wylie mentions one of his seven "ethnic"
characters he might as well add in thick magic marker "DID I MENTION THIS ONE'S
ETHNIC?" And then we have page 183, bottom of the page:
"Quite a lotta us Japs do look like monkeys," George said.|
It is too bad that the word "wtf" had not been invented in 1963, because that is
what Wylie's editor should have written next to that line.
And what's with every female character having to be beautiful? Apart from the
three graces, there's Angelica — "And it was not even the invitational shape
of Angelica's body, the even-more-inviting way she moved, her taunting eyes and
voluptuous lips, her pert nose, or the witchy way she flicked her inky hair that
summed up Angelica's charm" — and even the billionaire's wife, we are
assured, was quite the hottie in her day. It's hard to escape the impression that
Wylie wants every American character to be sympathetic, and cannot conceive of
a female character being sympathetic without being beautiful. Even the best-case
scenario suggests that Wylie thought, "Hey, it helps, so why not throw it in
there?" Well, for one, because you end up looking fucking ridiculous. Beauty is
amazingly powerful. So much so that it can induce a kind of hypnosis, can feel like
a direct experience of the divine. This is a bit much to bestow upon every damn
woman in your book. I mean, dude, pace yourself. Wylie comes off like the
literary equivalent of the little boy who eats all his Halloween candy in one
And the beauties in Triumph are so very bland. At least the perky-breasted
beauty pageant winner in Tomorrow! got to be sassy. I make fun, but I
actually liked that character. She wore a big yellow radiation suit sometimes!
And nothing at all at other times! That is pretty cool! The sassiness made it
much easier to be remotely interested when Wylie got all concerned about what
would happen to her vagina. Speaking of which, Tomorrow! also didn't have
Triumph's double standard: Wylie spends lots of ink in Triumph making
it clear that the Josie and the Pussycats aren't getting any nookie, but of course
all the men in the bunker have had scads of affairs (or as Wylie calls them,
"affaires"). Even the hideous physicist has had "a few casual" flings.
"In college. And when I was in Europe, taking graduate courses. Or working,
afterward, in labs in England and France. There were... unashamed girls.
It was the way they lived." And in 1963 America, it's the way men live. The
billionaire's daughter actually tells her fiancé in all seriousness,
"Look, dear! I had presumed you might cheat on me if we married. I was going
to ignore it when you did! So, if you can't resist that rich dish of
Irish-Italian, why, I'll ignore it before the fact of our marriage.
Seems only fair." Remember, the "rich dish of Irish-Italian" (man, Wylie) is
actually her father's own former mistress, one of several. So, to sum up,
married men are allowed to have affaires with showgirls, but their
daughters can't "practice being married" with their fiancés even in
the event of nuclear holocaust. But the fiancés can have affaires
with the showgirls.
Man. 1963. Good thing Kennedy changed all that in his second term!
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