Duck and Cover by Brenda Peterson. Harper Collins; 254 pages. $20.00.
Hostages. Kidnapping. Escalating tension. First Strike. Armageddon. Tactical maneuver. Boycott. Blockades. Strategies. War games. Chain of command. First strike. Diplomacy. Stalemate. Coup. Surrender. Defection. The Evil Empire.
This book is about family.
More exactly, it is about a family's cold war. For nine volatile but magnetic MacKenzies in Brenda Peterson's new novel, "Duck and Cover," fighting words mean home and familiarity. One by one, they describe their lives, their bonds in terms of battle formation, distorted religion, and acts of Nature which Peterson connects in this gentle satire of American values.
The one son of the family, Davy, is a fighter pilot for the navy, nicknamed "Rocket Man." In the midst of his divorce (another battle) he says, "being divorced is like being a man without a country." Life for him is a series of maneuvers, strategic manipulations, a kind of self-nationalism; Davy avoids destruction by being in control, ahead of the game.
More like his father than he thinks, Davy's son Timothy is caught up in a war between his parents. He stacks his side with his own army, with friends he thinks his father would hate: a Cuban wrestler, a Soviet immigrant, and a Soviet pen pal. He knows his father will get custody of him but he will run away, escape when he can.
Though the MacKenzies seem to see life through some kind of weaponry sight, they still find and cling to shreds of spirituality. Carpool buddies are wandering Israelites, the sample ladies at the grocery store offer communion in tiny bites and sips, and pure faith exists only in innocent manatees gathering in the waters around a nuclear power plant for winter warmth.
The manatee is a maternal symbol of hope and faith, especially for Daniella, a compelling MacKenzie grandchild who spends weeks drawing an undersea version of the nativity. She explains, "A manatee miracle calf to save his kind from extinction lies on a manger made of seaweed. Yellow angelfish float around the baby manatee like bright little halos. Dolphins and purple whales sing a Christmas cantata of clicks and bleeps that mean 'Welcome to the world!' There are sea bass as shepherds, three old white sea turtles for wise men, Joseph is a sleek sea lion, and Mary is Mrs. Manatee, so big and shining and round she's like the whole world, but underwater."
Tender insights like these make Peterson's novel glow with a kind of hope, seemingly lost to the MacKenzies. In a world of technology and tension, Peterson points us to little caves of spiritual renewal.
Paradoxical piety resides in the family matriarch, Madeleine. A bit of a religious fanatic, she clings to the idea that her children can and will be saved by prayer and that America is what keeps the world on course. Madeleine is seen by her children as a hurricane that destroys everything in its path. But what else does a hurricane do but bring people together in a good-natured huddle of solidarity? No one hates a hurricane, it's just an act of God, mysterious in its deadly destruction. Though the family members eventually "boycott" Madeleine, they don't hate her, some still come to see her secretly, like the manatees seeking the heat of the the nuclear power plant.
Both the MacKenzie parents' jobs (Madeleine works for the CIA and Samuel is a career diplomat) have perversely become their guiding light. The two of them are constantly tensing, preparing and practicing for the end of the world, World War III. Samuel is called regularly to a government underground shelter where he lives for weeks at a time, receiving false "bulletins" about his family. The couple, together, is known as the Evil Empire.
If the MacKenzie parents are the Evil Empire, then their grandchildren would have to be on the side of reason and light. The Empire's barely adequate views of life as a duck and cover drill are articulated by Daniella. "We live on the home front," she reports . "The real trouble is not out there, it's here, it's us." She concludes, "The nuclear family is just as dangerous a thing as the nuclear bomb. Even a child can trigger it . . . ."