Theory — September 9, 2015, 12:12 pm

The Fiction Atop the Fiction

Did Thomas Pynchon publish a novel under the pseudonym Adrian Jones Pearson?

Is it possible that the literary sensibility—person—that produced a clutch of novels under the name Thomas Pynchon has had a fat new novel out since April, under a different name, only to encounter a virtual vacuum of notice? That relative anonymity may have been expected, or might even have been among its aspirations, to prove a point?

Yes and yes. The book in question is called Cow Country, a 540-pager that came out of the chute from Cow Eye Press, a publishing house (if that is what it is) established in 2014 apparently for the express purpose of issuing Cow Country and perhaps related follow-ons, one of which is a centennial reprint of a 1916 eugenicist tract by Madison Grant, tying Americanism—patriotism—to racial purity. (Surely that is a stunt up someone’s sleeve.) Cow Eye Press sports a street address in Cheyenne, Wyoming, that is occupied by a registrar agent for company incorporation in the state, a firm that offers virtual offices in a locale “known for business-friendliness and respect for privacy.” 

The progenitor of this novel, its faux leather back cover attests in urine-yellow type (a hue and liquid one finds in the narrative as well), “is an independent author of idiosyncratic fiction. His work has been published under multiple pseudonyms. Including this one.” Adrian Jones Pearson. He is on Facebook, of course.

The book looks like the kind of flotsam that arrives at literary-review offices (the surviving ones) across the country with numbing regularity. But we will ignore for the moment aesthetic issues, such as the elongated car that looms on the novel’s front cover like something out of the film Repo Man, to consider some of Pearson’s opinions regarding authorship and literary culture. If Pearson proves enough of a curiosity, we might condescend to examine some of Cow Country’s literary qualities.

“I’ve always had a severe distaste for all the mindless biographical drivel that serves to prop up this or that writer,” Pearson admits in an interview in a publication called Cow Eye Express, part of the auxiliary Web material associated with the novel. “So much effort goes into credentialing the creator that we lose sight of the creation itself, with the consequence being that we tend to read authors instead of their works. In fact, we’d probably prefer to read a crap book by well-known writer than a great book by a writer who may happen to be obscure,” the unknown writer asserts.

Hmm. Somewhere I have heard of an author as reclusive as J.D. Salinger (who has no further need to defend his privacy). No, not the Italian Elena Ferrante (also a pseudonymous invention), but an American. Rather than face what he (assuming the gender itself is not fictional) calls “a false and destructive system” that is nonetheless “a reality of our world,” Pearson notes that his response is to “manufacture disposable authorial personae for every book,” making each one earn its own way rather than piggybacking on whatever reputation a previous title may have earned its author.

That sounds like an honorable approach, as Pearson’s interviewer notes. Will it work? “Probably not,” Pearson concedes. “The reading public, and especially professional reviewers, tend to be pretty dismissive of new authors.” He allows that “skeptical” or “indifferent” might be a better characterization than “dismissive,” for unknowns lack the benefit of the doubt reflexively ceded to well-known authors. While Pearson recognizes that he may be consigned to “an utterly disjointed and fruitless literary career” as a result, there is an upside: He will not be forced to participate in a “dishonest system that I don’t believe in.” 

Terrific, this seems promising enough to look into! We have an unknown author published by an unknown press with a huge chip on his shoulder about the state of our literary culture. What could be more interesting—albeit common—than that? But wait a minute, this is metafiction, fiction layered atop the fiction to orient our view of Cow Country itself. The interview is a fabricated story in a fabricated publication. Could someone be dropping clues like a row of bread crumbs, designed to stir in readers the thought that Pearson’s views are remarkably in line with those popularly believed to be held by a certain chimerical, widely known but seldom glimpsed author?

The only path forward from such an unanswerable question, much as it may pain us, will be to crack the covers of Cow Country and look under the hood of that ungainly car on its cover (a 1966 Oldsmobile Starfire, powder blue, in which a triumvirate of principal characters do some serious road time, it turns out). Rather than talk principally about Pearson or Pynchon, let us consider the literary sensibility of the author, sans any name, for a moment. 

Imagine an Edward Hopper painting, or a Vermeer if you choose. It will be bathed in a certain light, a very specific quality of light that is common to most of the painter’s work and is rather readily recognizable, even when encountering a work of the artist that one has not seen previously. The literary sensibility evident in Cow Country has such a perspectival wash of its own, which saturates the novel’s narrative events, its characters, its concerns, its slackwater moments, its linguistic and philosophical play (complete with running jokes referencing California, tantric sex practices and Vedic imagery, vegetarianism, Esperanto, eugenics, bowls of barbiturates, technological progress and barren prose, Venn diagrams, and two wildly differing schematics meant to represent female orgasm).

Cow Country is at heart a playful novel, side-splittingly funny in a goofy, almost junior-high way, overworking its material far past expected bounds, taking Emily Dickinson’s idea of telling it “slant” and running with it in wild abandon, sometimes to the extent of losing its very breath. Nonetheless, it is clear that an extremely confident sensibility is in control, one neither unpracticed nor hesitant, one that is unabashed when its whim is to temporarily abandon forward narrative inertia for other ends. This sensibility will take its time, and not so coincidentally, messing with perceptions of time and progress and history are significant leitmotifs in Cow Country, as ambiguous time frames become the norm almost without notice. The U.S. flag bears from fifteen to forty-nine stars in its various appearances, for example, without explanation, and early on the narrator remarks casually about “the ominous red dirt stretching around me through the centuries.” There will be recurrent talk of lost civilizations, forgotten cultures, and tongues. The novel seems to revel in its own delight of cultural esoterica, and it displays both a fondness for and a corresponding suspicion of countercultural motifs of the 1960s–70s as well. 

[Self Promotion]
Toward Literary

From an interview with Adrian Jones Pearson, published on July 7, 2015, by the website With Five Questions

with five questions: I don’t think I’ve ever read about the college accreditation process in a novel before. What were the challenges of writing about this process?

adrian jones pearson: The main challenge is that it’s an incredibly dull subject that is not really worthy of literary consideration. [But] if you can write about regional accreditation in a new and exciting way—if you can somehow make it sexy—then that would surely qualify as an accomplishment worthy of literary immortality. 

wfq: Where do you find time to write?

ajp: In my younger, pre-tenured days I devoted myself entirely to my teaching, and I did it in the most tireless and self-effacing way. And now when I look back on that time of my life, I think, you know, those years are gone, and I will never get them back—and I feel a tremendous sadness. Probably the turning point in my evolution came when I hung a Japanese calendar over the narrow window in my office door so students couldn’t see that I was in.

We find ourselves at Cow Eye Community College, situated in an unnamed western state amid a paroxysm of epic drought and self-doubt: the college is under threat of losing its accreditation, and Dr. Felch, its president, has hired the narrator to help unify a badly divided faculty to stave off what seems to be imminent institutional death. Charlie, whose title will be Special Projects Coordinator, admits that his own life has been “a collection of half-starts and near-misses,” the first of his two divorces entirely his fault but the second only primarily his fault, but he has new goals and not much time for a turnaround, either personally or for the endangered college itself. Need I mention that this novel is serious while spoofing, that the overwrought community college is a stand-in for community writ large, that high satire with a healthy dollop of bodily humor and a keen eye for paradox is this literary sensibility’s chosen (and perhaps as a person, inevitable) metier? 

Many of the college’s edifices are named after various Dimwiddles, the patron family that supports the college with legacy money, descendants of a weapons manufacturer. “It was said that one out of every seven bullets fired in the world was made at the Dimwiddle Arsenal—and so each time an armed conflict flared up somewhere around the globe, the college received a direct influx of cash.” As an escort puts it to Charlie, “We’re very fortunate to have this mixed blessing.” That blood money supports a faculty that includes Will Smithcoate, a historian who refuses to update his thirty-year-old lecture notes; Alan Long River, a Native American public-speaking teacher who has not spoken to anyone at the college (including students) for a dozen years; and boisterous (and sexy) math professors prone to dressing as clowns and mermaids. And of course, the campus boasts its own shooting range.

Tense dichotomies—male/female, meat-eating/vegetarian, newcomers (change)/natives(tradition), conciliators/contenders, racial/racial—abound as Cow Country unspools in the proverbial middle of nowhere, the vacillating Charlie (“I may be many things [but] none of them entirely”) tasked with bringing harmony, gulling the accreditation committee, and recounting the entire travail. The fates of literature and the humanities and love itself hinge on the outcome, but the deck seems stacked against such underdogs:

“How can the great novel stand a chance in a place like Cow Eye,” the historian chides Charlie, “where the likelihood of finding an educated, well-remunerated, God-fearing, tax-paying grateful reader of meaningful fiction is so small as to be almost infinitesimal?” And on another front, when the accreditor committee is evaluating the college and is asked about the nature of love, its members reply that it would need to be “aligned with the overarching purpose for the college’s being; that it will need to be data-based and continually improving . . . measurable, replicable, scalable and incontrovertibly objective.”

This might be a good point to forget strict matters of content (such as the fact that the team-building exercise for new faculty at Cow Eye Community College is to corner and castrate a calf, an act equated metaphorically and literally by Dr. Felch as sowing the seeds of all European civilization) and look at some of the sensibility’s prose in an incontrovertibly objective manner. Here is a sample:

To say the campus of Cow Eye Community College differed from the town surrounding it and from which it got its name is to note that a daughter is often unrecognizable from the mother whose house she shares and whose surname she can no longer return to—or that an island tends to differ in color and content from the moister things around it.

To travel onto campus and off is to move from desiccation to verdure and back (the sensibility’s wording). Cow Country is structured into three main sections, representative of Eastern thought that the universe is endless cycles of emanation, incarnation, and dissolution, but even in the first creative phase of Emanation, the very opening of the novel, dark clouds clot the horizon: With the cattle industry twitching its last, “the cottage enterprises that always seem to rise from the carcass of moribund industry—the writer’s colonies, the yoga studios, the guided nostalgia tours through the abandoned meat-processing plants and slaughter houses—were already popping up like so many mushrooms from the scabbed-over dung piles of the countryside.”

What significant notice has the presence of this energetic (if loosely knitted and gamboling) work drawn in the literary press? Virtually none. Kirkus Reviews, which publishes capsule reviews of works well in advance of publication, termed it “a comical novel about life at a zany community college, from debut author Pearson.” Whether or not it is considered humorous would depend “on the reader’s patience for tongue-in-cheek jokes about backwardness,” Kirkus wrote. In the online San Francisco Book Review, a publication that runs sponsored reviews (i.e., paid for) among others, a review by blogger Axie Barclay totaling three short paragraphs plus a quotation from Cow Country credited the novel’s hilarious deadpan humor and its “keen-edged satirical comedy.” The Midwest Book Review, an organization and website devoted largely to promoting libraries and small-press publishing, mentioned the book and dismissed the idea that it would be accessible only to academic readers, calling it a “tour de farce.” And that seems to be the sum of it. 

It is hard not to see some validity in Pearson’s assertions about unknown writers facing an uphill battle, given the silence that has so far greeted Cow Country. Certainly its publishing route is a factor as well, for widely recognized houses and imprints and independents such as Knopf, Farrar Straus and Giroux, Norton, and Graywolf, and a handful of others, do have an advantage when it comes to gaining the attention of reviewers and review-section editors. 

To return, finally, to the question of the book’s sensibility and Pearson and Pynchon, my highly subjective but very strong impression is that the two authors are closer than kissing cousins, they are joined at the hip. The off-kilter sensibility one sees in the work of both would not be, in the words of the college accreditors, easily “replicable” by another, in my opinion. Encountering Cow Country was like going to a thrift shop and finding designer clothing with the labels cut off. 

With a magnifying glass, one could look closely and find what seem to be minor instances of Pynchon jokes from earlier novels recycled in Cow Country, tweaked for their new context, perhaps the most specific evidence if one were searching for a smoking gun (“closure”) linking Pearson and Pynchon. But a far better way to contemplate the situation would be to immerse oneself in the skewed universe of the novel and feel (without extra effort) the pulsing of the mind behind its creation. Some of the reductive descriptive terms commonly applied to Pynchon’s work—zany, cartoony characters, oddball names—suffer not from their inaccuracy but from their inadequacy. They are visible here, too: In one paragraph, as if to say “Take THAT!” Pearson fires a quick burst of faculty names from the community college, names that came to him “like night through a windshield: Jumpston and Drumright and Manders and Poovey … Crotwell and Voyles. Kilgus and Spratlin and Yaxley and Jowers.” And that is not the half of them. 

A more interesting quality of Pearson’s work—and a career-long Pynchonian characteristic—is the feeling of dislocation, as if one were in a box with no side labeled “UP” for orientation. The build-up of that sensation is in many cases subtle, the story line seems to be flowing along logical lines in a given direction, and only late in the day does a reader begin to feel slight confusion and question his or her own assumptions. The respondent in conversations that Charlie is having will jump from one character to another without transition, for example, and it becomes clear that it is not a single conversation but many, conflated, and they could not possibly be taking place at the same time (although paradoxically, the reader feels that they are). The flaming arrow sticking out of a covered wagon, which Charlie spots in the early pages of Cow Country, can be taken as the arrow of time, and indeed arrows crossing in the air and in diagrammatic form will appear repeatedly as we proceed. As college employees dicker over whether to use manual or electric typewriters, elsewhere in the novel the newcomers are decades ahead with their cultural accouterments. Will Smithcoate, the historian, adds the most spectacular perspective here, suggesting that “the future, you see, is but the past in disguise.” 

To creep only slightly further out on a limb here, and just for fun, I would like to suggest that Pearson’s brief discussion of ruminal digestion—the cow’s internal food path—via Rusty Stokes, an animal science faculty member, is both a quick wink toward Melville and his whale minutiae and a parallel of the way that time is handled in the novel. Charlie repeats and repeats himself, characters repeat and repeat the essence of themselves when they suddenly pop into view, and something being passed for partial digestion (behind us as we read on) is then freighted up for new consideration (intellectual mastication), a loopy arrow of time if ever there was one, a ruminant opportunity. Not to mention that it bears some resemblance to the Eastern ideas of cyclical emanation, incarnation and dissolution.

The great Portuguese poet and novelist Fernando Pessoa created what he called heteronyms, alter egos or personas that allowed him to write as “them” instead of himself, a liberating and fruitful creative approach, he found. It is possible that something akin to that is going on here, if the same sensibility is behind both names, and that freeing oneself and one’s book from the connotation-heavy name seemed a good idea. However, Pessoa’s heteronyms are characters in his fiction—they express themselves and feel and act as personas—and that is not the case with Pearson, who, except outside the novel as his reality is created online, is merely a name affixed to Cow Country. So far. 

I suppose that I could stand on some prominent public literary stage, such as the 92nd Street Y in New York, and offer myself up to be pelted by cow pies in expiation for hazarding all the above, should I be proved wrong. Personally, I think that chance is small, and encourage any reader who enjoys Pynchon’s work to check out Cow Country. It is certainly the closest to a Pynchonian experience one will encounter outside of a book actually bearing his name. If I am in error, to the person hiding behind Pearson I would say, To be taken for Pynchon is no small compliment but an enormous one, and your mimetic abilities in emulation of his sensibility are admirable. To Pynchon, I would say, Don’t fret, and issue a reminder that imitation is the highest form of flattery, no? 

Art Winslow, an independent critic and former literary and executive editor of the Nation, is at work on a novel.

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Combustion Engines

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


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Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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