An American Family and the Reagan-Mondale Election

By Jonathan Schell

Knopf. 133 pp. $15.95

Jonathan Schell, the chronicler and ardent deplorer of nuclear Armageddon -- Calamity Jon, he's called in our house -- herewith turns his singularly earnest attentions to the election of 1984. That it took so long for him to come forth with so little is something of a miracle, but we must be grateful for small favors. And "History in Sherman Park" is, if nothing else, small.

It was Schell's fanciful idea to portray the 1984 election through the experience of a single family. Through a process not revealed to his readers -- but not, apparently, divine intervention, since the assistance of the Public Agenda Foundation, whatever that may be, is gratefully acknowledged -- Schell discovered a family in Milwaukee whom he calls the Gapolinskys, the very salt of the American earth: Polish-Italian, upwardly mobile, dignified but unpretentious, politically aware -- a Manhattan journalist's dream of the all-American family.

So off Schell went to Milwaukee: "Instead of finding out a little about a lot of votes, I wanted to find out everything I could about a handful of votes." He hung around with all the nice ethnic folks in Sherman Park, the neighborhood where the Gapolinskys live, and he got them to talk about all the big-ticket issues of 1984. Most especially, he got them to talk about the nuclear arms race, or, as he prefers to call it, "the possible end of the world," and being polite folks they were happy to oblige him, though there's little evidence that their hearts were really in the chore.

The odds are that the Gapolinskys, their extended family and their friends are every bit as decent and nice as Schell tells us they are, but there's something in the telling that leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. Part of it has to do with the traditional New Yorker thumbnail sketch -- "Fred, a wiry young man with a small face, who was wearing wire-rimmed glasses ...," "He was a thin man in his early fifties, and he was wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a blue blazer, and brown slacks ..." -- but more of it has to do with a cloying tone that constantly teeters right at the edge of condescension:

"There was a sound of laughter on the stairs, and Gina appeared, smiling, with Linda in her arms. Gina was short, full-figured, vivacious, and pretty. She had dark-brown hair down to her shoulders, large brown eyes, and soft, rounded features, and she was wearing bluejeans and a lemon-colored jersey with a cowl collar. Her smile was broad and her gaze direct, and she conveyed a feeling of warmth, forcefulness, and fun. She handed Linda over to Bill. Linda, who was wearing red one-piece pajamas, had dark curly hair and a willful twinkle in her eye."

It's all so twinkly and wholesome that it turns your stomach, which probably isn't what Schell had in mind. He probably doesn't even know how condescending he seems when he describes the gold-plated bathtub faucet "shaped like a swan's downward-curving neck" that Gina's brother bought for his beloved wife for $1,200, or Gina's mother's "multitude of decorative objects, among them a pottery rabbit in a pottery bed, a porcelain mermaid bearing a bowl of fruit, her tail affixed to a plate, and a pair of porcelain horses drawing a carriage bearing a real plant." Schell may think he's lovingly describing the artifacts of a typical American household, but there at The New Yorker they know better: he's compiling a catalogue of kitsch.

Having compiled that catalogue, what does Schell deduce from it about the 1984 election and the cosmic picture? Nothing new, and nothing interesting. It does not exactly come as a bolt from the blue that the election was between "pessimism" (Mondale) and "optimism" (Reagan) about the country's future or that "the parties disagreed not on what to do about the world's problems but on what those problems were -- what the state of the world was." Nor will any gasps of amazement be produced by the disclosure that domestic life in the country has changed, with new roles and expectations for men and women and with as yet unclear political effects.

If there is a point to all of this that has not already been made in thousands of newspaper reports and analyses, Schell fails to tell us what it is. Instead he just drones along, grinding away toward an anticlimactic dithyramb about "the threat of our annihilation" that is not, considering the source, exactly startling. What is quite startling, though, is that it took so long for Schell to produce this book; the mountain labored for three years, and brought forth a mouse.