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[03/16/2008] 'The Post-War Dream'
Date of Review: 
Donna Seaman
Los Angeles Times

Hollis' scouring memories of war are dramatic and evocative, to be sure, but it's the little things, like Hollis' unearthing green plastic toy soldiers in his cactus garden, or a session with a blind Asian masseur, that give one shivers. Not to mention the galvanizing reminiscences of Hollis' drinking buddy, Lon. As a young sailor, Lon witnessed the July 25, 1946, underwater atomic bomb blast near the Bikini Atoll that "shot a massive column of ocean water nearly a mile into the Pacific sky," dug a huge crater in the ocean floor, set off towering waves and generated an appallingly gigantic, churning domed cloud that rained death. As Lon observes: "Not many remember all that stuff these days, no one talks about it anymore. But I'm fairly certain I saw the very beginning of our undoing -- that exact second when the world started losing its mind for good."

Hollis' stint on the front lines grants him a damaged leg, a Purple Heart, a hometown parade and a drinking problem. Once again he flees his home, this time making a risky pilgrimage to West Texas to visit McCreedy's family. There he meets the calm, assessing woman who enables him to get on with life. But Hollis harbors toxic secrets, just as cancer brews secretly in the cells of his steadfast, clear-eyed wife. As he tries to help Debra, Hollis, steeled by the icy fire of grief and catharsis, finally confronts his hidden past and the meaning of his disturbing postwar dream.

In this exacting, suspenseful, elegiac yet life-embracing novel, Cullin reminds us that no boundaries separate the personal and communal, the past and present, the false and true. War is a long-lasting poison, and horror lurks under the surface of everyday life. One can only hope that calamity strengthens and clarifies the mind and spirit, allowing us to see beyond pain and perceive death, as Hollis finally does, as "benign by nature and not unkind."