The Heat of the Sun
David Rain
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The Heat of the Sun
David Rain
Henry Holt
304 pages
November 2012
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Rain’s profound and operatic novel moves from the Roaring Twenties to the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 to when terrorism and distrust define a man’s life. The heart of the tale is the voice of bookish Woodley Sharpless. When his father dies soon after completing his consular posting in Nagasaki, eight-year-old Woodley is orphaned in Paris and adopted by kindly Aunt Toolie, who sends him to Blaze, an exclusive boarding school.

Searching for some protection against the violence and cruelty of teenage boys, Woodley befriends Augustus le Vol and Ben “Trouble” Pinkerton. With his deeply penetrating eyes, Trouble invites Sharpless into a darkness that is “once alarming and warm.” Trouble is magnetic and exotic beneath his blond sweep of hair, but he's considered a “preening sissy” by the other boys and haunted by the reputation of his father, Senator B.F. Pinkerton, considered by many to be a capitalist lackey, a criminal and a liar.

The novel unfolds in melancholy beauty as Sharpless falls back into Trouble’s orbit, following his friend through tragedy and romance. The early scenes at Blaze implant the seeds of sexual attraction. Living in a trance of longing and regarding himself as a budding poet and book reviewer, Sharpless feels in touch with the rhythms of the pages “that clang like cymbals.” In gilded New York, he senses a connection to Trouble’s magic. All is revealed in the burnished Gramercy Park apartment of stepmother Kate Pinkerton, who offers Sharpless a conduit into the past embodied on Nagasaki’s exotic Higashi Hill, once the perfect love nest for dashing Lieutenant Pinkerton.

Filled with “bonhomie” and bent on pleasure, the thought of contracting a marriage with the gorgeous “Madame Butterfly” fills the naive Lieutenant with a sense of urgency and of hope. Out of this simple human connection comes a story of history and of loss. When Pinkerton eventually attains high office, trailing the “skeins of scandal,” Sharpless connects with him in unexpected ways even as he continues to be seduced by the feckless charms of his half-caste son.

Rain’s narrative gives voice to Woodley, who talks with an authenticity appropriate for a man growing older at a pivotal moment in history in the shimming heat-drenched town of Los Alamos and its Manhattan Atomic Project--which in turn places the city of Nagasaki on a collision course with fate. All the while, Woodley questions his purpose and his place as a soldier and as a friend, and the insistent fluttering of his heart becomes a powerful symbol for a longing that distends and never seems to stop.

Without Rain’s perfectly shaded characters, we would not likely comprehend the ramifications of American nationalism, the horrors of Japanese imperialism, Trouble’s thwarted decisions, and the tangled web of Woodley’s desires and how one person can be so absorbed, even twisted by an idea. Augustus le Vol’s account to Trouble of being a Japanese prisoner of war alternates with real scenes of horror that sometimes feel like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting of Hell.

Incorporating a descriptive pointillism distinctly his own, Rain’s powerful images sear into the reader’s mind a panoramic view of history, the rise of a nuclear armed world, and a realistic and brutally honest portrayal of the ripple affect of human atrocities. Amid all is Trouble, whose unearthly pale, exotic beauty transfixes Woodley as much as it torments, “like the vision of a god that might never come again.”

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2012

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