I feel like I lived Steven Church’s The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst, even if I didn’t grow up in Kansas. Church manages to capture the nuclear angst that overshadowed my own Cold War-childhood. I was too old for “duck and cover,” but Reagan had the arms race in full swing, so the threat of Armageddon loomed over all. “I was afraid of the future,” Church wrote, “more comfortable with the fantastical….”
Church grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, the town featured in the 1983 television movie, which was also filmed there. The overlap had a profound impact on Church because “[t]his synchronicity between fiction and reality was not an unusual experience” for him. “This was the sort of boundary-blurring experience that defined my childhood,” he says.
In the same way, I lived just a few miles to the east—downwind—of Three Mile Island when it nearly melted down almost simultaneously with The China Syndrome. What’s real and what’s imaginary and how do the two play off each other? What memories result, and how do we understand those memories?
The Day After came a few years after TMI. I remember watching it on a grainy color TV in my dad’s living room. In school the next day, we talked about the movie. It might’ve been the first time that I’d been assigned to watch TV as homework, but I’d have watched the movie anyway. It was stark, startling, bleak. I loved Jason Robards from his performance in Something Wicked This Way Comes, so to see him in a different movie, a movie with mushroom clouds, was a highlight. JoBeth Williams, hot off Poltergeist, showed up, too.
Church’s book also conflates (intentionally) the experience of Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, and the other Wolverines from Red Dawn in his childhood story of atomic angst. I loved that movie as a kid (and as a guilt pleasure will still watch it from time to time).
Church kept delighting me–and I don’t use that word lightly–with the different cultural references he made in his book and the different metaphors he used to support his theme. Wizard of Oz, Super Friends, Marvel Comics, John Brown and “Bleeding Kansas,” Wrath of Kahn, backyard basketball—I have lived that life. In the midst of that imagination, Church finds strange comfort in the daily farm report on TV. I had a farm report, too: the 100-acre farm my dad owned, where I toiled away summers and my first two years of high school.
In a way, I still live the life Church is talking about. “To hold your own child in your hands—in one of the hands you inherited from your father—is to feel the entire universe in your palm,” he says. Amen, I respond, amen.
Church’s use of the fictionalized adulthood of Danny Dahlberg, a character in the movie, makes for an innovative and proactive narrative conceit. It lets Church say things he, as a reliable narrator, couldn’t otherwise say. Its was a particularly neat device–and particularly effective.
I also like the little bit of journalism Church throws in there when we goes to talk to the film’s director, Nicholas Meyer, and the way he ties in real-life post-tornado destruction into the book’s theme of apocalypse. Kansas has a long history of violence, real and imaginary, man-made and natural, which he conjures with respect, fear, and awe. Overall, he really gives himself tremendously fertile ground to explore, and then he explores it in interesting and thoughtful ways.
The book’s many layers kept me captivated. I didn’t feel like he was beating me over the head with his associations, either, which allowed me to do a lot of the “work” and be engaged with the text in really enjoyable ways. That allowed the book’s themes to reveale themselves to me gradually, richly.
The book also ties into a Memory Studies class I’m taking this semester. “What happens when 100 million Americans (at least) remember a television experience?” he asks, right in line with some of the questions we were asking in class at the moment. “It gathers the collective weight of memory like a magnet. It becomes bigger than itself, larger than life. It lives forever.” I’d be curious to hear what Day After memories, if any, S&R readers have.
I’m not sure if I agree with one of Church’s main assertions: “[A]rt needs to be about engagement and activism and not about escaping reality.” I don’t know if I agree with the activism part, but I agree that what separates art from entertainment is whether it’s main function is escapism. Art can certainly do that, but it has to do more, too.
Church’s book, I think, is a great example.