The Long Loud Silence by WIlson Tucker
Dell Books, 1952
Price I paid: 50¢
Corporal Russell Gary—operator—angle man—black-marketeer, junior grade—liberator of anything loose—veteran of Salerno and Normandy—a man who knew how to live by his wits and a gun.
Celebrating ten years in khaki, Gary went on a monumental binge…
While he slept it off, the United States east of the Mississippi was laid waste by atomic bombs and plague germs. The few who survived were immune to the plague but carriers of the toxin. No one from the contaminated area crossed the Mississippi and lived more than a few seconds. The army guarded every bridge, every inch of shore line. If you happened to be east of the river when the bombs fell, you stayed there until you died. There was no other choice, no other future.
When Corporal Gary woke up he was on the wrong side of the river, the bombed and contaminated side…
Well hey, if it isn’t time to visit Wilson Tucker again! I didn’t exactly mean to find a book quite as, uh, topical as this one. I pulled it from the stack because the font size looked pretty big and I figured it would be a quick read. Plus it seemed like a fun idea to revisit Tucker, seeing as how the other two books I’ve read were pretty okay but not especially great. They were also later entries into his canon (Resurrection Days was his last novel), whereas this book appears to be his second published novel!
NB: The version of The Time Masters that I read was a revised and rewritten edition from 1971. The original was from 1953, just after The Long Loud Silence, and I’d be interested in seeing that original version and comparing it to the only science fiction book that takes place in Knoxville, as far as I know.
What I’d really really like to read is some of Tucker’s fanzine work, because I get the feeling that it might be better than his novels? I mainly say that because his work in the fandom seems to be what he’s a lot better known for than his original work. And I’m not trashing that! After all, it would make me a bit of a hypocrite, wouldn’t it?
So the first thing about The Long Loud Silence is that it has an excellent title. And the second thing is that it also has an excellent cover. It’s pretty representative of what goes on in the novel! And what’s even more wild is that the back cover synopsis is pretty much entirely accurate. What’s going on here? Dell Books, what sorcery are you committing?
Our, uh, hero, is a guy named Corporal Gary. It turns out that Gary is his last name but that doesn’t help matters much. Corporal Gary sounds like a guy who shows up occasionally on a kid’s show to tell all the little kids about how the War Effort is going. Remember to tell your parents to buy War Bonds, cuz Corporal Gary said so! And here’s Corporal Gary’s good friend, Uncle Joe Stalin!
His full name is Russell Gary, and he is indeed a Corporal in he U.S. Army. Fought in the Big One. Was at Normandy, even. Also Salerno, which gets a lot less press these days. I’m gonna admit, I don’t remember learning one dingdang thing about the Allied Invasion of Italy when I was in school.
We learn, in a way that seems shockingly blasé, that Gary got through the war by siphoning off war supplies and selling them for a tidy sum on the black market. Now, I know good and well on an intellectual level that not all of the boys that fought in that war were Golden Angels of Liberty. They were people and people are people. But that doesn’t mean that the propaganda hasn’t had some effect on me, because my initial reaction to this news was a plain and simple WHAT.
I mean, he probably sold supplies to Nazis, didn’t he? It seems like a likelihood. Whether he meant to or not, there it is. Our hero might well have assisted the Nazi war effort while he was supposed to be killing them.
So once I wrapped my head around that, I began to assume that this story was going to be a tale of redemption in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. And it turned out that it was not. Not for anybody, in fact!
The way this story is told is kind of noteworthy. It starts off with Gary watching a woman try to cross a bridge. We don’t know anything about what’s going on at that point except maybe for what we read on the back cover. Woman is trying to cross bridge, Gary knows what’s going on without explicitly telling us, woman is shot and killed by the army. And then we have a flashback to when the whole thing started…
Gary chose to celebrate his thirtieth birthday and tenth anniversary of joining the Army by going on an epic bender. Wouldn’t be my choice, but whatever! It becomes one of those narratives where he wakes up like two days later and everything is weird, so he has to figure out what happened. I happen to really like that kind of narrative! I know it’s pretty stock-standard and maybe even played out, but I do like it. Quantum Leap is pretty much my favorite show and my favorite part of the show is the five or six minutes of Sam figuring stuff out before Al shows up and explains the rest to him. It’s great. It’s kinda how I feel most mornings just after waking up.
Gary finds a lot of dead bodies. Most everybody, it turns out, is dead. There are a few bomb craters in the street but that doesn’t seem to be what did it.
He eventually meets up with another survivor, and this is where most of the really gross stuff in the book happens. Part of it is Gary but there’s also just the way that this character is written objectively, so it’s kind of hard to tell which is which.
We meet Irma as she’s looting jewelry stores. She’s a young woman, that much is obvious. Gary thinks she’s sixteen or seventeen but she insists she’s nineteen. She’s obsessed with jewelry? Like, civilization basically just ended and her entire existence is about looting jewelry stores. Women, right? Ugh. I wanna blow chunks.
Irma is utterly useless in a lot of ways but she does allow Gary to explain some basic survival skills to her (and the audience) in an attempt to prove how competent he is. Meanwhile she’s able to explain a little bit of what has happened in the world since she was at least awake to see it happen, unlike certain “competent” men I could name. There were bombs, yes, but also people started dying in ways that seemed unrelated to the bombs. Germs, maybe? Some kind of gas? Radiation? Neither of them are quite sure.
There’s one bit of the book here that I wish I could just ignore but it’s too damned gross and also confusing for me to pass up. Early on after meeting, Gary and Irma stay in a bombed-out hotel. Irma is too scared to sleep away from him so they share a room. I guess you see where this is going? But it’s worse and, like I say, more confusing than that.
Up to this point he’s been insisting that Irma is a teenager while she insists that she’s a nineteen-year-old college student. And so while they’re shacked up in this hotel, she “proves she’s nineteen” to him. That’s the language.
What the actual hell does that mean?
I mean, I know what it’s saying. They fucked. Fine, whatever. But how does that prove she’s nineteen? Did our author think that maybe teenaged women physically can’t have sex? That at 18 or 19 some kind of shell falls off, or that they grow some kind of gland that produces sexual desire? The gland that produces a mysterious hormone called Hornytonin? I just don’t get it. It’s just as likely that Gary proved something that night instead of Irma: that he’s a statutory rapist.
And based on his actions throughout the rest of the book, that’s not an unlikely thing to think! Gary never grows a person throughout this entire narrative. Every new situation is just a new way for him to prove what a piece of crap he is. I get the feeling that maybe we were supposed to feel that he’s desperate, that he’ll do anything for survival. But he never once stresses out about any of the things he does. Never feels sorry for the choices he made, even if he felt like it was the right decision in the moment. There’s no reflection at all, just a race to his own survival.
Gary eventually comes to the Mississippi River for the first time so that he can rejoin with the Army. He casts Irma aside to take care of herself, despite her protests, and then learns that there’s no way he can cross the river himself. The Army won’t take him back. He’s contaminated.
I think, though I might be wrong, that this is the point where the narrative switches back to the present. And the way it does that is to basically repeat the entire first chapter, word for word. Pretty clever, Mr. Tucker! Gotta hit that word count, and if anybody calls you out on it, you can claim it’s a narrative device. I’m gonna give you mucho credit for that trick.
He meets up with a guy, a former schoolteacher named Oliver, and they travel around for a while. They take care of one another and I started to wonder if this would be the point when maybe Gary starts to learn to be something besides a jerk, because Oliver is a pretty okay guy. They meet a scared woman named Sally, who takes a liking to Oliver and wants to travel with them, but Gary makes it clear that he won’t have her along unless…
OH GOD DAMN IT
“We split everything 50/50, right pal?”
He won’t allow her to tag along with them unless he gets to have sex with her as much as Oliver does. She agrees to this but it’s not consensual. It’s clearly coercive. Her life is on the line. This book is a trash book about a man who is trash.
The trio make their way to the Gulf of Mexico and shack up together for a while and it’s, I guess, pretty nice. It’s pretty nice for Gary, anyway. But things take a turn when Sally ends up pregnant. Oliver explains that although there’s no way for them to know who the biological father is, he wants to be the kid’s daddy, and that means Gary needs to leave. For some reason? Again, this book confuses and irritates me.
“The kid can’t have two fathers,” explains Oliver. “How would we explain that to him?”
Explain what, exactly? For all y’all know, you’re the last people in the world. The kid isn’t going to be born with any expectations about heteronormative parental relationships. That shit’s a construct, dude! Just let three people raise the kid in the post-apocalyptic wasteland! It’s more likely to survive that way!
Jeez, everyone in this book has bad ideas about everything.
Perhaps surprisingly, Gary agrees, albeit begrudgingly, and he leaves. He gets into several more adventures over the course of the book, all of them relying on being a lying scumbag or an outright murderer. He takes advantage of a family’s grief to get them to allow him to Winter over with them as a night watchman. It’s here that he’s finally able to find a working radio—the family gets some electricity from a windmill—and learn a bit more about what’s going on. The big cities have been nuked to shreds. According to the man on the radio, there are no survivors east of the Mississippi except for “enemy agents” who are constantly trying to cross the river and, I dunno, finish the job of destroying America, I guess.
We never learn who the enemy is in this book, or why they just chose to destroy the eastern third of America with their germ bombs instead of all of it.
Anyway, Gary is distressed at the propaganda he’s hearing, knowing full well that it means he’s been completely abandoned by the government he used to rip off and sell stuff to the Nazis.
And then after that he comes across what appears to be an Army caravan and is able to learn some things about them.
It turns out that while the big cities all got nuked, there are survivors from government bunkers and they’ve been in contact with the folks West of the Mississippi. The remaining government out there is in need of gold, because America didn’t end the Gold Standard until 1971. This caravan is out of Fort Knox and is on the way to the river to deliver some gold.
So Gary sneaks around and kills everybody and takes control of the truck full of gold and claims to be one of the soldiers so that he can finally escape across the river.
Oh, it’s worth mentioning one of the things that makes this book so topical right now. Back when Gary was hanging out with Oliver, the schoolteacher explained that even though the three of them and however many other people on this side of the river are immune to the plague that ravaged the land, that doesn’t mean they can’t still transmit it to other people. So maybe it’s best that Gary, uh, not try so hard to cross the river, because then he’ll end up killing everybody else.
Gary is very selfish and chooses to ignore that! Can you imagine?
And it turns out that Gary’s whole trick about stealing a truck does work. He makes it across, escapes, kills a few more people and steals enough money to have a real good time, and leaves a wake of bodies behind him as he infects them. The military catches on pretty quickly and is after him, so Gary decides that the right thing to do will be to find a way back across the river. Why? So that he doesn’t infect any more people? No, of course not, his life is the one that matters. He just realizes that he’ll be killed if caught, so it’s more likely he’ll survive on the other side after all.
The last few chapters of the book are so very unsatisfying. He ends up living in a cave for a few years, just surviving. Fine, whatever. It’s mentioned that he goes back to where Oliver and Sally were staying but finds nothing. Were they killed? Did they just leave? No clues.
One day while hanging out in his cave, he hears somebody nearby. It’s winter, he’s cold and hungry. He figures that the person is out hunting, so the best thing to do will be to let them kill a thing and then he can kill them and steal it. Sure, whatever. That’s his plan. It sucks because he sucks.
One of the things that distresses me most about this book is that there’s absolutely no cooperation from anybody, ever. Everybody’s in it for themselves. The largest groups of people we meet who work together are nuclear families. This is the kind of rugged individualism that would easily spell the end for civilization if an event like this were to occur. People need each other and they need cooperation to survive hardship. Will there be bad actors? Of course, probably, but that’s no reason why everybody would decide to abandon the very idea of community in the event of catastrophe.
Anyway, Gary tracks this lone figure for a while and follows them home. He knocks them out so he can steal their stuff but suddenly he realizes who it is! It’s Irma! Ten years older! At least she’s almost certainly legal now, right?
So he waits for her to wake back up and then just says something like, “Hey, remember me?” and the book ends.
I wish this book had at least one more sentence, and it was of Irma blasting Gary’s head off with her hunting rifle. Maybe then society would have a chance to return without heels like him running around.
I don’t actually know what to make of this book. It’s pretty clear that the author didn’t really intend for us to like or root for Gary, but then, what’s the point of the story? What are the stakes? I didn’t want him to survive. I think it would be better for everyone else if he didn’t. So why should I feel the need to follow his adventures unless I’m gonna write a review of the book and how much I hate this guy? I don’t think that was the target demographic!
Are we supposed to get some kind of vicarious thrill out of following a guy doing nasty selfish crap? That sure didn’t work for me, let me tell you! Or are we supposed to think about how desperate Gary is, and how he needs to do whatever it takes to survive? That didn’t work either, cuz every decision he makes is a bad one!
If this had been a book about Gary meeting up with some folks and helping to rebuild, that would have been worth reading. Especially if the book had kept the part about how the Western states had written the East off, claiming everybody was dead, waiting for the radiation to subside so that they could come back in and and reclaim the land. That would have been a good story! We could focus on the resettlers’ concerns over whether the government really believes they’re dead, or whether when they come back across the river to clean up if they’ll let people live or they’ll just kill everybody. A bleak tale, for sure, but one worth telling!
Instead we get this “I’m out for myself” mentality for 180-odd pages, where a guy takes advantage of other people for either his own survival or pleasure and comes out in the end with what? He met Irma again? Are we supposed to think they’ll get back together now, after he left her a decade ago and then met up with her again just to knock her brains out? Oh, I’m sure she’ll love that. The problem is that I expect that because of the author and the time this book was written, we are supposed to accept that possibility. And that’s gross too.
I don’t like how gross this book is. I don’t recommend reading it. Read something more uplifting, like On the Beach or A Canticle for Leibowitz.