I am the first person to moan and groan when a reader tries to play literary detective with my novels and equate fiction with fact. I recently had a hemorrhage when someone told me my mother once had a station wagon with a Bible verse painted on the side. No, that was "Mrs. Alma Burns," the mother of "Sonny Burns" in my novel Going All The Way, and no, I am not "Sonny," the shy, withdrawn photographer in the novel (I was a shameless high school social climber, columnist for The Shortridge Daily Echo and editor of The Annual.)
Nevertheless, I couldn't wait to get my hands on the new novel by Ian Woollen, who is the nephew of my high school girlfriend Kithy Woollen, who inspired my first short story, "Autumn Full of Apples," (collected in The Best American Stories of 1966), and the son of my friend the architect Evans Woollen (who is Kithy's older brother), and the grandson of Evans and Lydia Woollen, the formidable couple who I knew while courting Kithy. Naturally, I was eager to read Ian's novel, Uncle Anton's Atomic Bomb, to see if I could find any bombshell revelations about my friends the Woollens!
In the novel, the Woollens are "The Wangerts," and early on I recognized "the diagnostic stare" of the grande dame of the clan, "Constance Wangert," the kind of stare I remembered from when it was fixed on me by Kithy's mother when I came to call. Lydia Woollen was indeed of the breed grand dame, known for the "flinty elegance" that describes "Constance Wangert" in the novel. I held up under the "Woollen stare" that had withered other teenagers, and I counted Mrs. Woollen one of the adult friends whose company I enjoyed. She approved of my literary aspirations, and introduced me to the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose revival in the 'fifties began with the biography she gave me when I was home from college, The Far Side of Paradise. I was working as a summer replacement reporter on The Star sports desk, and when Bob Collins, my mentor and hero, gave me my first byline, the first person to whom I proudly showed it was Lydia Woollen.
Her grandson's novel takes us through three generations of "Wangerts," from the '50s to the '90s, and the discerning Lydia would be proud of his accurate "Invocation of the 1950s," which opens Uncle Anton's Atomic Bomb:
"Sit back, sip your drink, and allow words and phrases such as 'sock hop' and 'fallout,' 'Studebaker' and 'Red Scare' to summon up what images they will. Trust that your evening libation tastes pretty much the same in 1951 as it does today. And if you are a member of gen-whatever for whom the year 1951 has no reference point, imagine a period in American life when the term 'unwed mother' had a nasty sting."
There were even "bomb shelters" being built by some American families in those Cold War days, and in this novel, "The Wangerts" have one in their backyard — which tells me this must be fiction, for The Woollens would rather have been blown to atoms than to suffer such a grace-less, undignified, faddish phenomenon to sully their property!
If anything clearly separates the fictional "Wangerts" from the real-life Woollens, it's the family business — in the novel, Ward Wangert, Sr. started his own public relations firm and his son went to work for it. I doubt the term "public relations" ever was uttered by Evans Woollen, Jr., father of Evans III. In fact he was not happy about his son becoming an architect — he regarded that profession as "Bohemian" (his generation's version of "hippie.") Perhaps he would have been consoled to know that the "Bohemian" architect gained national recognition for designing buildings such as Clowes Memorial Hall, the new wing of the Indianapolis Central Library, St. Meinrad's Archabbey, and the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut.
Hopefully, the accomplishments of Evans III, which grew from architecture to painting in his later years, with gallery shows in New York, would have been deemed worthy by the distinguished grandfather of the clan, Evans, Sr., who was Indiana's favorite son candidate for Vice President at the Democratic convention of 1936.
Evans Woollen, Jr. was President of The Fletcher Trust Bank, and fit the image of a strait-laced banker in a Sinclair Lewis novel. I had the sense he was born in his three-piece suit with the watch-chain across the vest, and that he surely must have slept in it. He was a man of few words, and the few he uttered were law. Mr. and Mrs. Woollen were on the same train I took to New York when I first went to Columbia, and they invited me for dinner in the dining car, which in those days was a grand place with linen tablecloths and bowing waiters. I desperately scanned the menu to find the cheapest entrée, but before I could spot it Mr. Woollen said, "Dan, you'll have the steak." I believe those were the only words he spoke during the meal.
His son Evans the architect shares the trait. The "Wangerts," like the Woollens, have a family place on an island in Maine where they go every summer. Any "Wangert," like any Woollen, fears taking a new love to meet the family for what they regard as "the island test." Evans, long after his wife Nancy had died, once took a new woman friend to Maine for "the island test," and when asked how it went, he reported — in typically succinct Woollen-speak — "It was not a success."
The premise that sets the plot of the novel in motion is that "Mary Stark" who will later marry "Ward Wangert," is hired by The State Department to teach at an Anglo-American School in Moscow in the 1950s. Now I am fascinated to learn that the real-life mother of the author and wife of Evans Woollen taught at an Anglo-American school in Moscow from 1951-1954! So what if there are real family bombshells hidden within this "fiction?"
Now comes the potentially juicy part — the "Mary Stark" in the novel has an affair with an up-and-coming CIA agent in Moscow who remains a lifelong womanizing bachelor and spies on her and her family after she marries "Ward Wangert." This CIA man in the novel is so powerful and his identity so secret that he is only known as "He Who Remains Classified." My imagination is going full-steam-ahead as I try to think if I knew any genuine CIA agents who might have been that character in real life.
You have to understand that in those days — in the 1950s — almost everyone who graduated from an Eastern college was at some time recruited by the CIA, whether they joined or not — even me! I was taken to lunch at an eastside New York restaurant by She Who Will Remain Classified (that feminist icon doesn't like to mention her service as a spook) and asked if I would go with her and several other young writers to put out a "student newspaper" countering Commie propaganda (with our propaganda) at a Communist Youth Festival in Helsinki. I learned years later the gig was sponsored by a CIA front — they'd cover all travel expenses if I could get a magazine assignment to write up the event. I was willing, but pitching it to editors only drew yawns. Damn! I could have been a soldier in The Cold War!
Still wondering if there might be a real life scandal in the Woollen novel, I was thrilled when I heard that a former CIA career man from Indianapolis was arriving back here for a visit. Could it be that he was the real-life "He Who Shall Remain Classified," coming home to spy on the author of the novel? This distinguished high level spook, now retired, was an old friend of mine from Boy Scout Camp Chank-tun-un-gi and Shortridge High School, and I can only refer to him as He Who Shall Remain Unidentified. What if this former Eagle Scout had been the real-life cad in Moscow who seduced the future "Mrs. Ward Wangert" in the novel?
But here my colorful "expose" theories fell apart, as I learned my former Scouting friend was not now, nor had ever been, a womanizing bachelor, but married his high school sweetheart, raised his own family and lived a life of loyalty to home, country and family. In the similar pedestrian truth of "real life," no prospective Woollen wife would have passed the "diagnostic eye" of Lydia had she fallen from virtue before marriage, nor would such a scarlet woman have passed "the island test" of family sanction; as a Woollen would put it, such a misguided foray "would not have been a success."
So we are left without a scandal — only a fine work of fiction (a good story, with plenty of suspense and intrigue), set in Moscow, Maine and Indianapolis, a family saga in the tradition of Hoosier Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons. We can only hope some contemporary Orson Welles (who directed Ambersons) will take this drama to the screen.
Dan Wakefield writes both fiction (Going All The Way) and non-fiction (Returning: A Spiritual Journey.)