At the very beginning of "Long Voyage Back" by Luke Rhinehart, both the District and New York City are destroyed by nuclear bombs. That's for openers. From that point on, things only get worse.

Despite its obvious cautionary element, "Long Voyage Back" does not preach. With the exception of the tense and moving opening scene, Rhinehart never takes us into the offices of the American and Soviet officials who made the war. Rather, he brings a very narrow focus on a small band of survivors who are bent on only one clear, if seemingly unattainable, goal; remaining survivors. Only one of them is inclined to speak often in generalities, and that is consistent with her character. Otherwise, Rhinehart simply unfolds his harrowing story, and only a madman would be unmoved.

We, like Rhinehart's intrepid band, see the holocaust only at a distance. It is at first a red glow in the sky, then a black cloud overhead, then a horrifying welter of confusion, shock, terror, grief and more confusion. The characters, hurled together by circumstances and moved by a common will to preserve their own lives, flee the worst of the destruction on a 50-foot trimaran, a three-hulled sailing vessel, out of the Chesapeake Bay into the open Atlantic. But the radio brings only news of greater catastrophe. The destruction follows them in the form of radiation sickness. And as they begin to sort themselves out in their first days at sea, they realize that their worst perils still lie ahead, some of them as yet unimagined.

Their first landing for food and supplies farther down the coast is a disaster: martial law looks more like civil war, and the makeshift refugee centers offer even worse conditions than their crowded, inadequate ship. They flee again, heading farther south toward the Caribbean, fighting radiation poisoning, seasickness, storms, starvation, and bitter personal battles every nautical mile. When, at last, they reach what they hope will be the haven of Caribbean waters, they encounter only further disappointments and dangers. And then the pirates come.

Rhinehart's narrative prose is neither smooth enough to be invisible nor rich enough to be interesting in its own right. It is, at best, efficient. And his dialogue, alas, only reminds us of E.B. White's dictum that talking should sound like talking, not writing. Rhinehart's people talk like characters in a novel.

Only one of them, a salty old fisherman named Captain Olly, ever really transcends his stereotype. The author was clearly as in love with him as readers will be, and the writing fairly glows on the page every time he appears. But the rest of them even look like characters in a novel. There is the tough-minded, self-disciplined, ex-Navy officer who resigned his commission after Vietnam, and who now is charged with the leadership of this very motley crew. There is the very confident business tycoon, accustomed to using war scares for his own financial advantage in stock manipulations, now reduced to helplessness. There is the clear-headed, beautiful woman, now struggling with a burden of normal decencies in an abnormal world. There is the tough guy with the gun who clearly will try to take over the ship one day, simply because he always thinks he knows best.

Yet, despite the undistinguished writing and characterization, this is a tremendously powerful book. Rhinehart's sense of drama is exercised on every page, and his tale rushes along from crisis to crisis at a breathtaking pace. He handles his large and ever-shifting cast of characters deftly, never leaving us in doubt about what motivates any of them, and we read along at a rate about equal to that of the trimaran sailing before a good wind.

In the end, given the strength of Rhinehart's storytelling powers and the grimness of his tale, even the very flatness of his characters contributes to the novel's impact: these people have no time to be anything but simple. They are absorbed with the desperate task of survival in a world where everything is different and everything poses danger. Now as each day passes, they are weaving a fabric of decisions, some major and some merely routine, that will--at least, for them--change the course of history.

"Long Voyage Back" deserves to stand on the same shelf as Nevil Shute's "On the Beach." It is a breathtaking adventure, a vivid story of human endurance and the will to live, and a thought-provoking entertainment on a horrifyingly timely theme.