Reading Log 2019 #2: Fallout, by Todd Strasser

I’m conflicted on this book. On the one hand, I generally enjoyed it? I think? I mean, I started it at like 9:30 on a work night after finishing my previous book and finished it at midnight the same night, so it definitely kept me turning pages.

That said, I also think the book could’ve been so, so much better.

The gist of the plot is: the Cuban Missile Crisis goes hot (note: this is NOT an alt-history of any sort so don’t expect any detail on how that all goes down or anything; the point is simply that it’s early-60’s American and the nearest big city to our cast gets nuked). The one guy in the neighborhood who had the foresight to build a fallout shelter in his backyard orders his family in as the sirens go off. The neighbors, who know about the shelter but did nothing but make fun of the family for being paranoid, bum rush his place and, after a struggle, some of them make it into the shelter with the main family.

The bulk of the story, then, is about how these people get on when forced to live in a dubiously-supplied shelter, particularly given that half of them forced their way in against the will of the guy who built it.

It’s a very small-scale story that focuses on the various pair-relationships between shelter inhabitants. Backgrounds on those relationships are provided via flashback chapters quite often, showing how those folks interacted prior to the bombs going off.

The story does best when focusing on the protagonist, Scott. He’s a nearly-teenaged boy, the son of the shelter-builder, who I identified quite a bit with. He’s a “good kid”, but his best “friend”, who ends up in the shelter as well, is quite not, and keeps trying to lead him astray. These tensions amp up in the shelter, naturally, and the author handles this relationship in particular with a deft hand. It reads honestly as a relationship that could’ve existed in reality.

Scott’s father is portrayed with a kind hand as well. He reads like a lot of dads I’ve known (though not my own): he means well, but lacks some of the tools, particularly in the empathy category, to be a truly-good dad. And a lot of his mistakes are effectively made against his own will and correct instinct, driven by societal pressure instead. After the bombs go off, the dude is in a truly shit situation, and he handles it (and this is a beef I have with the book in general) just about as well as anybody could. I’m not sure if this character is believable in extremis, but his pre-war characterization reads pretty true.

Some of the “bad” characters, however, are pretty ham-handed. Bad Kid’s father, in particular, is almost a caricature of an effete, college professor liberal of the nascent go-go 60’s, letting his kid drink wine at dinner until he’s hammered, leaving Playboys about, and sneering at his less-refined neighbors construction of a shelter in the first place. The guy sucks, in an almost unbelievable way.

Likewise, the women characters are pretty thin, the black housekeeper particularly so. They serve largely as props for the men to act against, even though they’re often the smartest people in the room.

My prime beef with the book is that it’s somehow too optimistic. I don’t think this scenario would or even could play out as neatly as it does; even given the death and conflict involved, it’s… not enough, somehow, given the enormity of the catastrophe that has obviously occurred to the world. I don’t want to spoil how it all plays out, but I ended the book with a pretty heavy sense of “well, that could’ve been much worse”.

Lastly, I want to mention that the book miserably fails the test of Chekhov’s Gun, which is always infuriating.

So, I dunno… I chewed through the book fast, it’s a page-turner, but I think I was turning pages mostly waiting for the other shoe to drop, which it effectively doesn’t. I also enjoyed the writing of the lead character enough to be invested in his fate, at least, if not of many of the others. If you like explorations of how people forced into extreme close-contact scenarios will behave, you’d probably enjoy Fallout, just know that it certainly lies on the optimistic side of the genre. Even though New York gets nuked.