Mathoms from the Time Closet (1)

Apologies to Gene Wolfe for borrowing the title of his story from Again, Dangerous Visions, but it’s a phrase that’s stuck with me for years.  I’m sure my family is tired of hearing me exclaim “Mathoms from the time closet!” whenever we drag out Christmas decorations, old newspapers, sneakers down at the heel, or any other of the other numberless objects that linger in limbo between daily use and the yard sale.  It seemed apt for this post, because I want to talk here about books, the mathomy sort of books: books old, obscure, out of print, or unjustly ignored; books that spring at you from dark places and take you by surprise.

Subject of today’s sermon is David Bradley’s No Place to Hide.  It isn’t science fiction, or fiction at all, but if you harbor a fondness for surreal Ballardian cold-war landscapes, or anything involving atom weapons, Bradley’s 1948 memoir is likely to ring your bell.

I picked my copy out of the fifty-cent bin at a second-hand book shop in London, Ontario, many years ago.  Buying it was an act of desperation: road trip, an hour to kill, nothing good to read.  Serendipity struck.

David Bradley was an MD attached to the task force that conducted the A-bomb tests at Kwajalein and Bikini Atoll in the Pacific shortly after the end of World War II.  Bradley was doing radiological monitoring for the Navy, and the book is a log of his experiences.  This is intrinsically interesting stuff: Bradley explores coral reefs scheduled for nuclear extinction, flies through clouds of fallout in a less-than-airtight B-29, and boards test ships loaded with dead and dying livestock still simmering with lethal radioactivity.  (He also boils quart after quart of urine samples collected from sailors involved in the project: assaying for contaminants was a cruder process in those days.)

The hardcover first edition of Bradley’s book is almost spectacularly drab, a text-only jacket in shades of brown and beige, with all the allure of a forensic report on accounting practices in the zinc-mining industry.  (A later Bantam paperback edition replaced this with a portrait of three terrified and shirtless sailors under the tag line, They defied an atom bomb!)  It’s also a short book, 168 pages of loosely-set text in generous margins, perfect for single-session reading.  So I carried No Place to Hide to a local restaurant (one of those egg-and-burger places you find in every Ontario town, with a calendar from the local car dealership on the wall and a crowd of ball-capped regulars hogging the best tables), where I discovered passages as darkly poetic as this:

The moon has gone, leaving us surrounded by the black chasm of the Pacific night.  The breakers on the reef glow and fade all up and down the length of the island, and the deep insomniac breathing of the ocean is always beside you.  Pale terrestrial sand crabs flee along the beach and vanish into their holes like vague hallucinations.

Out of the east a black wind brings the haunting music of Cape Cod in other summers, night cruises in the phosphorescent seas of late August, the desolate gonging of the bell buoys and faraway foghorns, the flutter of the sails.  Strange how it can be all around you—your life—nearer and clearer than the breakers on the reef and yet no more retrievable than the passing wind…

And it’s all like that: moody, beautifully observed dispatches from a thoughtful correspondent who happened to be present at a crucial hinge in human history.  Bradley is exquisitely aware that something important has changed and is changing, something beyond the mechanics of warfare, something half-hidden, as Bradley says, “where only the very few know what is really going on behind the darkness and barbed wire, or what effect it will have upon the living and the unborn.”

Long out of print (though I believe there was a reprint edition in the 1980s), largely forgotten, No Place to Hide is as perfect a specimen of its time as a paleolithic insect preserved in amber.  It kept me reading through lunch and beyond, over cup after cup of coffee delivered by an increasingly impatient waitress.  It’s as compelling in its way as that other small book of the time, John Hersey’s Hiroshima.  A mathom from the time closet, in other words, and well worth seeking out.

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