Kind of weird,” says a character (a fifth-grader in Westchester County, N.Y.) about certain events, both local and celestial, that make up the action of Thomas Mallon’s second novel. ”I think it’s kind of weird, but kind of neat, too.” Believe the kid — he knows what he’s talking about. Aurora 7 is kind of weird and neat; it’s also kind of mysterious, kind of thrilling, kind of luminous. At the same time, it’s kind of a nightmare to summarize.
It’s about an 11-year-old’s absorption with Scott Carpenter’s glitch- plagued orbital space flight in 1962, but it’s just as much about a day in the life of a taxi driver, a concentration camp survivor, a cop on the beat, a writer for The New Yorker, an unemployed Puerto Rican teenager, and a young Catholic priest who’s ”beginning, for the first time, really, to wonder what sort of figure he could cut in the world, and in the bedroom.” It’s also about President Kennedy dedicating the Sam Rayburn Building in Washington, and Lee Harvey Oswald receiving an exit visa in Moscow; it’s about a ”series of dignified encounters with the unavoidable”; and finally (mostly), it’s about the shifting, inexplicable moods of God, the novel’s central character. Oh, and it’s also about a star going nova and a bale of loggerhead turtles laying their eggs. (I said it was a nightmare to summarize, didn’t I?)
But for all its complex strategy and numerous characters, both real and imaginary, Aurora 7 is no daunting, schematic book. It’s a reading novel, an old-fashioned, perfectly voiced page turner with ideas.
Gregory Noonan (a ”little odd boy unattracted to getting dirty, uninterested in getting a dog, unamused by Mad magazine”) is suddenly compelled to drop everything and run away from home. The day is May 24, 1962 (evoked with a pop culturist’s sure hand: Ipana toothpaste commercials, Rosemary Clooney songs, sunburst wall clocks). As Scott Carpenter goes whizzing around the earth, drinking Tang, chatting with Mission Control, flipping a crucial switch at the wrong time, Gregory is drawn to New York’s Grand Central Terminal, where thousands of commuters in that pre-jaded era stand mesmerized, watching Walter Cronkite report from Cape Canaveral on a giant television monitor. Gregory is convinced that his own fate is somehow linked with Carpenter’s — and Mallon (in just one of the book’s many miracles) convinces the reader that this is precisely the case; that, in fact, everyone’s fates are inseparably linked.
What sounds like The Family of Man crossed with a religious tract is actually nothing of the sort: God, though referred to by the biblical male pronoun, is no bearded paterfamilias, simply (or not so simply) an intelligent force, an unknowable engineer, neither benevolent nor malign. As the novel hurtles toward its heart-stopping conclusion, the astronaut is ”lost” during reentry, Gregory steps off the curb directly into the path of an oncoming Checker cab, a dozen ordinary lives converge for an instant, and God makes some quick calculations, a few hasty choices. Which He later regrets.
Compassionate and disturbing, Aurora 7 is a tour de force as intrinsically American yet stubbornly cosmic as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. And kind of wonderful.