AURORA 7 By Thomas Mallon Ticknor & Fields. 238 pp. $18.95
RECENTLY, I attended a lecture by a well-known author of young adult fiction who told his audience -- 500 surprisingly placid-looking (or maybe just whupped) librarians -- that book-oriented libraries, like the ones we knew as kids, were becoming obsolete. Except that his tone implied a graver opinion: that such libraries ought to become obsolete, that they were an affront to modernity.
"Take the term 'Media Center' seriously," the author implored his audience. "More should be happening in libraries than just books. Books don't make enough noise." He suggested a few modifications: couches and bean bag throw-cushions to replace stern desks and ramrod chairs. The natural reading position for the young and the restless, he said, was supine. Supply library patrons with gizmos for listening to current CDs and watching MTV. Let there be noise! Toss a few books around on the floor like artifacts, and maybe somebody wandering through the multimedia fog will trip over them and feel curious enough to scoop them up for a flip-through.
Kids today (and adults, for that matter) require multiple stimulations. Folks are used to coming home from school or work, switching on the tube, strapping on the head set, plopping down to write a report, eyeball the headlines, do math on a calculator -- simultaneously. Life's crackling; the brain waves are jam-packed with reaction. The linear plot is a has-been because life itself isn't linear anymore. To sustain a reader's interest, books have got to reflect the vibrancy of fragmentation. A novel should read like rapid-fire rotation through every cable channel you can get. That's what the man said all right. And the librarians nodded hypnotically.
I am orbiting around here to a review of Aurora 7, Thomas Mallon's sparkling second novel, a literary meteor about to smash into Media Centers everywhere. It's simply one of the most engaging and intelligently energetic books I've read in some time. And, yes, it's a multimedia trip, if you need one. If I were an inquisitive 11-year-old kid, I'd want to get my mitts on this book. If I were a befuddled middle-aged dad or a housewife pondering the conundrums of parenthood, I'd rush to the library and check it out. Walter Cronkite would get a kick out of this book -- he's in it. And Mr. and Mrs. Scott Carpenter of astronaut fame would be amazed: They're still quite the stars. If a reader were falling in love for the first time or puzzling the fathomless uncertainties of God's sovereignty or timidly toeing the brinks of either adventure or disaster, well, that kind of reader would do well to hook up with Aurora 7.
Thomas Mallon's story asks a lot of profound and unaswerable questions. But the tone of the book is tender and marveling, no trace of the black holes of cynicism in this novel's trajectory. Rather, Aurora 7 suggests a wavering inkling of order amidst the confounding happenstances of life. Order -- or is it luck?
When I referred to the book as multimedia, I was not being glib. Aurora 7 is loaded with dials and channels and blinking lights. Television sets tracking Carpenter's Aurora 7 voyage blaze constantly. But people read books in this novel, too. They go to art museums. There are radios playing Rosemary Clooney and Ricky Nelson -- something for everybody. You hear commercial jingles and feel like singing along. There's the theme song from "Car 54, Where Are You?" and the campy, espionage-laced banter of Boris and Natasha on the old "Rocky and Bullwinkle Show." A Winky Dink screen gets mentioned, and lovely pictures of circus clouds are beamed back to earth from satellites shaped like Jackie Kennedy's pillbox hats. But the richest media presented here are the poignant imaginations of the novel's marvelously dimensional characters.
Aurora 7 takes place in a single day: May 24, 1962, the day Scott Carpenter hurtled three historic loops around planet Earth. It was a flamboyant mission that nearly ended in failure. Most of what Thomas Mallon observes happens in the lives of the ordinary grounded folks, people who are quietly risking their dreams while the world holds its breath for the safety of one astronaut.
We meet Gregory Noonan, a fifth grader so febrile with space-age enthusiasm that he moves through his parents' suburban home as remote from them as a nebula. He will mysteriously disappear from school this day, as if beamed aboard Carpenter's toy top of a craft.
Gregory's father, Jim Noonan, is a glove salesman who commutes daily into New York City. He's a tenderhearted man, worried about his aloof little boy, worried for his company, too. The sedate ladies' gloves that the company manufactures are going out of style.
His wife, Mary, worries that she can't do enough for her little family. She's supposed to nurture and support her men -- that's what all the articles say. But every other mother on her block seems tidier than she, upholders of the PTA, in command of charity drives, shepherding Brownie troops and raising normal gregarious sons who play Little League. Her Gregory is unathletic, sober, dutiful, obsessed with science and solitude and, quite recently, immune to the gravitational pull of his loving parents.
As the novel plumbs the reasons for Gregory's disappearance, other lives go twirling: harrowing, vainglorious, illuminating, awe-struck lives. Scott Carpenter swoops across the state of Texas in one-half minute, swoops over a prisoner -- a convicted child-killer -- doomed shortly to die in the gas chamber. Scott rides above an anxious woman in Great Britain who will soon give birth to a thalidomide-stricken baby, flies over a priest who has fallen in love with a girl he's met on the steps of a Manhattan library, rides the skies above an oblivious, acid-tongued writer on her way to an illicit rendezvous. No, not everybody cares about you, Scott.
The mingling and meshing, the nearly calamitous interplay of characters created in this dazzling, spare book is a feat of lyrical and thematic engineering. Mallon got every detail right. You're back there in 1962, practically innocent again. You're part of history. But because Mallon is a writer who's not about to sink you into the slough of facile nostalgia, you're whipped forward, here and there, allowed to find out exactly what happened later to this or that person. You want to know because you care. And Mallon grants you the privilege of traveling not only through space but time.
Aurora 7, as unpretentious in size as the space craft that bore its name, is vast with insight, charming and provocative -- a brave mission of a book to put back the stars in any reader's eyes. Marianne Gingher is the author of "Bobby Rex's Greatest Hit," a novel, and "Teen Angel," a collection of stories.