(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1953 edition)
4.25/5 (Very Good)
Preliminary Note: I read the 1969 Lancer edition which was “specially revised and updated by the author.” Other than many overt references to the Vietnam War which chronologically could not have been in the original 1952 edition, I am uncertain how much was subtracted, added, or re-conceived. John Clute at SF Encyclopedia indicates that “early editions” deleted references to cannibalism. Perhaps he means the pre-1969 editions as it is horrifyingly present in this edition. I wish I read the first edition as comparisons to his contemporaries would be easier to make. Anyone who has read both versions or knows of a resource which lays out the modifications, please let me know. The idea of updating a radical 50s novel for a late 60s audience intrigues me!
The Long Loud Silence (1952, revised 1969) is a quiet novel that depends on the emotional impact of loneliness and trauma, and the desire for intrahuman connection in a dying world. The United States undergoes forced bifurcation along the Mississippi after an all-out attack (bombs, biological weapons, and sabotage by foreign agents) by an unknown force.
“If you were among the lucky millions living in the western two-thirds of the nation, you gave thanks to your god. If you were among the unlucky thousands still struggling for an existence east of the river, you remained there until you died. There was no other choice, no other future.” (6).
Corporal Russell Gary, back in the United States after service in Vietnam, wakes up from a drunken stupor on the wrong side of the Mississippi. The rest of the army is stationed on the Western-side preventing the contaminated Eastern populace from crossing. In many ways Gary fits the anti-hero mold and is strangely at odds with most 50s protagonists. He wishes he was with the remnants of the army shooting those who try to cross the river. In addition to his shrapnel wound received in battle, Gary undergoes emotional trauma after his return from Vietnam, “He talked aloud to himself, and didn’t care. He had done that in Viet Nam a few years before and the mark of loneliness clung to him ever afterward” (134).
The violence he experienced in war resonates with more force when it is his homeland in ruins: “Chicago was ours… and our cities were not meant to be touched. Chicago was not at all like those foreign towns that belonged to strangers. Chicago hurt him” (38). This back and forth internal dialogue between his previous war experience in the “Hue campaign” and “five days on the River of Perfumes” (8) and the newly wrought devastation generate some of the novel’s strongest moments.
Gary’s episodic journey up and down the the Eastern states–he occasionally looks for a way to cross Mississippi, at other times searches for a place to hold up for the winter–exudes uncomfortable realism and brutality. With “morbid curiosity of an onlooker who knows the game will end in disaster” (6), he follows and observes an old women shot while attempting to cross the river. He rescues a young woman named Sandy and brings back the body of her dead brother (partially devoured by hungry raiders) for the sole purpose of convincing her parents to let him stay the winter. He spends another winter in a polyamorous relationship (“You want me to be nice to both of you?” 70) in Florida—a relationship that falls apart when Sally decides that her child is Oliver’s and not his. As the population dies off, only the desperate and increasingly feral remain.
The Long Loud Silence transposes the devastated landscape of a bombed Vietnam to the American heartland. In this world only a scarred man who cares predominately for his own survival will stay alive. The apocalyptical world that remains in the East slowly dies, and in the West propagandistic narratives cover-up the guilt of abandoning a people.
If a 50s novel with polyamory, cannibalism (overt references were left out of earlier editions), a flawed and traumatized protagonist, and simple but effective prose intrigues, be sure to find a copy. This is a dark little gem that writhes with quiet and ruminative pain.
Wilson Tucker’s The Long Loud Silence joins Level 7 (1959) and A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959 (although the latter two are superior) as my favorite post-apocalyptical novel of the 50s. I look forward to reading the other Tucker novels in my collection: The Lincoln Hunters (1958) and Tomorrow Plus X (1955).
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(Uncredited cover for the 1969 edition)
(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1952 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1980 edition)
(Franco Brambilla’s cover for the 2014 Italian edition)