Christopher Lawrence

"I guess it’s fair to say that there were two distinct phases to my life in West Virginia," writes Homer H. Hickam, Jr., in Rocket Boys: A Memoir. "Everything that happened before October 5, 1957 and everything that happened afterward." As it happens, Mr. Hickam’s pivotal moment was shared by millions across the globe; the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1 marked the dawn of the Space Age and sent spasms of disbelief and national self-doubt rippling across the United States. The author’s father flatly dismissed the prospect of Russian technology sailing over Coalwood, West Virginia. "President Eisenhower would never allow such a thing," declared the senior Hickam.

The satellite cast a long shadow over the mining town where Homer and Elsie Hickam were raising Homer Jr. and older brother Jim — mostly in the form of a challenge to American youth to redouble its efforts in mathematics and the sciences. The darkness and tension of the Cold War lent an almost supernatural quality to the feats of rocketry and spaceflight. Four decades later, Hickam remembers, "They [the Soviets] were so walled off to us . . . when you don’t know someone and they’re a mystery to you, you tend sometimes to ascribe superhuman qualities to them."

That fall, the Hickams were getting almost all of their news from Life and Newsweek. The magazines arrived on Wednesdays — and persuaded all that the "Red Moon" was a reality. The author had just turned 14 and liked "Pepsi and Moon Pies." He also really liked biology classmate Dorothy Plunk.

A love of reading — particularly science fiction — and some success at writing short stories distinguished the boy, but those qualities were largely lost on a father obsessed with his responsibilities as Coalwood’s mine superintendent. The fact that "Sonny" seemed ill-suited for a life in and around mining created a painful gulf between the father and his namesake.

As Sputnik augured an era that would pass the mines by, it also inspired the youngest Hickam to begin experimenting with rocket propellants and designs according to models seen in Life. He banded together a group of close friends and formed the Big Creek Missile Agency. As time passed, they would become known, in town and throughout the county, simply as the "rocket boys."

After early mishaps (including the launch of his mother’s rose-garden fence), the rockets began to soar. With better propellants and more sophisticated designs, the Auk series (named after a bird that cannot fly) began reaching heights of a mile and beyond. Auk XXXI, the final flight, would reach an altitude of more than six miles. Its design was the product of painstaking empiricism coupled with hard-won skills in chemistry, calculus, and engineering. For their work, the miners’ sons had won the Gold and Silver medal at the National Science Fair. Then, in the spring of 1960, hundreds gathered at "Cape Coalwood" for the final launch. Among them, for the first and only time, was Homer Sr. He flipped the switch to fire the rocket, and in one shining moment the door was closed on the tensions and confusion which had surrounded the two. Sonny Hickam had finally been given permission to be something other than a mine engineer.

There was another fine moment in that spring of 1960. Junior Senator John Kennedy from Massachusetts came through the county en route to the Democratic nomination. Sonny made it his business to let the candidate know that the United States should go to the moon. Kennedy seemed to take the idea more seriously than the well-wishers gathered that day. It’s an astonishing image, and Hickam plays it beautifully, deadpanning, "well, I really think that Wernher von Braun had more to do with it than I did, but . . . "

Next came four years at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. After graduating in 1964, his rockets took him not to Cape Canaveral and NASA’s triumphs, but to the dark side of the 1960s: service in Vietnam. "I volunteered to go over there. I felt I should go, and I had an ulterior motive: I wanted the experience. I was young and invulnerable, and the war was something I wanted to taste — a crucible to pass through. Once there, it took me about 48 hours to figure out ‘I don’t really want to die over here.’ I didn’t see much that was worth my life or the lives of my men . . ." Hickam finished his tour with a Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal and remained with the service as an engineer until 1981.

More than two decades after Sputnik, Hickam was living his boyhood dream. At NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, he began training astronauts for orbit. He worked on many Space Shuttle missions, including the delicate rescue of the Hubble Space Telescope, before leaving the agency earlier this year. The time has been spent establishing an aerospace consultancy and concentrating further on his writing.

"I don’t look for inspiration. If I did, I’d probably never sit down in front of the word processor. The first thing to do is to go ahead and write and not worry too much about the style and format or anything like that. Get the story down and then go back — what I really love is to go back and re-write. I’ve made the mistake of faxing stuff when it was hot off the typewriter, and I’ve always regretted that. Every time."

Well, perhaps not every time. Rocket Boys the book began in 1994 when Hickam received a desperate call from an editor at Smithsonian Air and Space. A few hours and 2,000 words later, Hickam had submitted what amounted to the germ of a book. The hitch: he had to track down 14-year-old Sonny Hickam, his compatriots, supporters — and his father. The intervening years had pulled survivors away as it banished them to the edges of his memory. "Finding the boy’s voice was the real challenge," he says. "It was only when I started writing the book that it really came back to me — how I felt in those days before that last launch at Cape Coalwood . . . I’d have to say that in the intervening years I did not have any issues with Dad, and I don’t think he had any with me. I was quite contented about our relationship. In trying to find the boy’s voice, I had to bring the issue back up and worry it over."

With Rocket Boys in print and a Universal Studios film due shortly, Life magazine has again been arriving at his house — this time for photo shoots.

Meanwhile, as NASA struggles to regain the momentum of its early years, Homer Hickam is "disappointed, but not surprised" by the agency’s focus on Earth orbit at the expense of the moon. "When I spoke to Kennedy, I thought we should go, and I still think we should go." The author has given himself a productive way to "worry it over." Next up: a "techno-thriller" called Back to the Moon.

Christopher Lawrence is a freelance writer based in New York City.

"I guess it’s fair to say that there were two distinct phases to my life in West Virginia," writes Homer H. Hickam, Jr., in Rocket Boys: A Memoir. "Everything that happened before October 5, 1957 and everything that happened afterward." As it happens, Mr. Hickam’s pivotal moment was shared by millions across the globe; the […]

Ohhhhh, ‘the Big Book.’ I wish I’d never said it and that it had never been published." Bret Easton Ellis is wincing as we sit at the writing desk of his East Village apartment. While he’ll cheerfully revisit the critical controversies surrounding American Psycho and Less Than Zero, a flippant remark made to Vanity Fair four years ago has him fretting a bit. "The Big Book" concept was picked up and used in virtually every piece that’s appeared since. In a string-and-can game of telephone journalism, the ironic spirit disappeared, and Ellis was understood to mean that he fancied the forthcoming work his magnum opus — one by a writer still in his mid-thirties. "I never wanted to create the expectation of ‘the big book’ because I thought it was going to take three or four years to write and would come out after American Psycho, and it didn’t. It became the big book only because of how long it took to write and all the garbage that went on in the intervening years."

The book in question is this month’s Glamorama, and if Ellis doesn’t consider it the career-defining statement (he’s too smart for that), it remains in almost every other way a very big book. Seven years in the works, the novel is 482 pages of conceptually ambitious social satire; a scathing look at the society of the spectacle. As we talk, it is apparent that no matter the reception awaiting it, the book’s greatest impact is being felt in this large apartment and in its author’s life. The birthing process has been so long and has spanned such difficult seasons that the sense of relief on publication is now palpable. For Bret Easton Ellis, Glamorama is indeed a big book — the one that is now off his shoulders.

"I changed a lot because I wrote this book and because I finished this book," Ellis says exhaling smoke from a Marlboro Light. "A lot of things changed for me — certain fears, certain insecurities were alleviated, not necessarily by the book’s subject matter, but just because I wrote the book I never thought I would finish. There was a sense of accomplishment that . . . fixed me in some way." Indeed, there is an openness and a sense of peace about the man that is surprising. The dark-suited, scowling figure from the dust jackets and the magazine profiles, the tormented bad boy of New York letters, is nowhere in evidence as we chat in his spartan apartment. I’d been warned by a friend that Ellis likes to make a show of his awkwardness and inaccessibility, and revel in it.

As we sit, however, he is nothing if not eager to please. Bret Easton Ellis looks healthy and handsome in khakis and a polo shirt. He serves me cranberry juice and he laughs readily — never more so than at himself and the dramas that have been such a part of his public persona.

It’s not surprising that Glamorama‘s wicked skewering of celebrity culture has proved cathartic for its author. When Less Than Zero hit the bestseller lists in 1985, Ellis was still a junior at Bennington. The book surfed the zeitgeist in a way that earned its author money, popular acknowledgment, and no small amount of critical suspicion. The attention lavished on his chemical, sexual, social, not to mention literary, lives was exceptional for such a young writer. "Spy magazine made a living out of making fun of me and Jay McInerney during [the ’80s]," he says chuckling.

These days, Madonna has a daughter and practices yoga; Bret Easton Ellis, fellow 1980s survivor, writes books and avoids the Hamptons.

1991’s American Psycho was a daring book, one that its admirers insisted was exceptionally black and brave satire. But what Ellis himself describes as the "flat, pornographic tone" of the narrator’s account of the torture and killing of young women earned him death threats and made him a literary pariah.

When we venture to the difficult period after Psycho’s publication, Ellis smiles before doing a laundry list of personal problems that coincided with "the initial horror about the book." Though he can be disarmingly earnest, he plays with the hoary old myths of the tormented, self-destructive writer: the death of a father with whom he’d failed to make peace, "relationships falling apart, maybe . . . I can’t believe that I’m so blase about this — problems with drugs and alcohol. Of course, there’s that little part of me that loves to say that . . . but at the time it was not funny."

Unfunny enough, in fact, that the battle with Glamorama‘s initial stages threatened to drive him out of the business: "It really got to the point where I thought it took too much work to write a book, and I thought it wasn’t worth it. I thought I’d find another way of making a living."

The good news is that seven years later, Ellis remains very much a writer, and Glamorama features the same mix of seriousness and mockery as its author. The book is less a character study than his previous work. As a critique of the numbing superficiality of an age in which "beauty is an accomplishment," it comes smartly packaged as an espionage thriller.

Characters have been drawn from that patented Ellis stock of the materially overindulged and spiritually malnourished. (Narrator Victor Ward returns from The Rules of Attraction as do other minor figures from the past.) In turn, they thrust into a world in which virtually anything is possible and the indolence of the rich and beautiful is interrupted by shocking acts of violence. Ellis has written for those of us who have long harbored suspicions that Christy and Kate and Cindy are up to no good; that behind the photo shoots and runways, there lurks real evil. The author manages to play his game for a mixture of outrage and farce that connects the jet set to terrorist acts and which feels strangely authentic. As Ellis puts it, "the celebrity culture is so surreal, so that’s a big part of the book." In the end, Glamorama works because it is only marginally more surreal than the evening news featuring Barbara Streisand whispering in the president’s ear or Ginger Spice retiring from pop music to become a UN envoy. It’s when the book is most tempting to dismiss that it is most eerily familiar.

But throughout the book and over the afternoon as we talk, even the weighty themes anchoring the work won’t drag the new Bret Easton Ellis down. Amid the moral outrage driving the work, there is always a keen sense of the absurd: "It’s something that I’m really interested in as a writer — finding the comedy in the horror and the chaos of it all, drawing that out."

He talks about being older and clearing the emotional minefield of his twenties and about the perspective that it has given him. A novel set in Washington and "tangentially related to politics" is in the planning stages, but it is a memoir addressing his late adolescence and the (sort of) halcyon days at Bennington that seems to most interest him right now. Ellis continues to vent his angst onto the page: "people think it’s this grand notion — of writing as a form of therapy, but it’s really not. It’s just helpful." He’s grinning as he says it, pleased with the thought and tossing back some grapefruit juice for emphasis.

Glamorama, sprawling ambitious thing that it is, may not be the "Big Book," but it’s done. These days, for its author, that’s enough.

Christopher Lawrence is a freelance writer based in New York City.

Ohhhhh, ‘the Big Book.’ I wish I’d never said it and that it had never been published." Bret Easton Ellis is wincing as we sit at the writing desk of his East Village apartment. While he’ll cheerfully revisit the critical controversies surrounding American Psycho and Less Than Zero, a flippant remark made to Vanity Fair […]

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