- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 8, 2004

A HOLE IN TEXAS

By Herman Wouk

Little Brown, $25, 278 pages

REVIEWED BY JEFFREY MARSH

Herman Wouk has been a fixture on the bestseller lists for over half a century, and his latest novel shows that the veteran writer, now approaching his 90th year, remains a master tale-spinner. “A Hole in Texas” is a fast-paced farcical romp that brings together ivory-tower scientific researchers, congressional pooh-bahs and Hollywood hustlers.

When the book begins, aging astrophysicist Guy Carpenter has been on the staff of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California for a decade. He is enjoying a peaceful life with Penny, his wife of over 20 years, who is about a decade younger than he and has interrupted her scientific career to become a stay-at-home mom after the birth of their new baby.

Suddenly, Carpenter is forcibly reminded of a part of his life he wants to forget: the years of effort he devoted to building the Supercolliding Superconductor (SSC), a massive particle accelerator whose construction was abruptly cancelled in 1993 when Congress cut off its funding, leaving the huge eponymous hole in the ground in Waxahachie, Texas, as a memorial.

The main purpose of the SSC was to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson, a still-unobserved hypothetical particle that plays a key role in the reigning theory of elementary particles that physicists call the standard model.

When the totally unexpected news breaks that Chinese scientists claim to have discovered the elusive boson, the bemused Carpenter finds himself swept up in a wave of media-induced hysteria that plucks him out of his habitual absorption in scientific research, and plunges him into the treacherous environments of politics and the mass media.

Complicating matters further, the leader of the Chinese research team is Wen Mei Li, now a highly-placed scientific bureaucrat married to a general. She had grown up in America and was known as Wendy when she was Carpenter’s fellow graduate student — and girlfriend — back in the ‘60s, before she returned to her homeland.

Their romantic relationship ended a decade before Carpenter met his wife, but Penny has heard of Wendy, and the mere mention of her name is still enough to inspire a fit of jealousy.

As the story proceeds, this jealousy becomes less insane than it appears at first sight. In short order, Carpenter is summoned to Washington to meet Myra Kadan, a junior member of the Science, Space and Technology Committee. A former actress, she was elected to Congress following the untimely passing of her husband, a millionaire businessman-turned-congressman from California.

Kadan, a quick study, finds that Carpenter is ideally suited to bring her up to speed on the significance of the Higgs boson, and in return tries to help the bemused Carpenter — whose scientific acumen is matched only by his inability to comprehend the feminine brain — straighten out his relationships with his wife and Wendy.

Demonstrating a total lack of understanding of the significance of the Higgs boson, the press has proclaimed the Chinese discovery as a mortal threat to U.S. military security. First, Carpenter finds himself courted by Hollywood hustlers seeking to sign him on as a highly-paid scientific consultant for a blockbuster disaster movie.

Then his reputation is threatened when he is called to testify before a congressional investigative committee that wants to make him a scapegoat for the United States’ failure to discover the Higgs boson first, and Hollywood rejects him.

He’s also dogged by Quentin Rossiter, a Bob Woodward-like Washington Post reporter with a myriad of well-placed sources. The reporter has discovered that Carpenter opened a secret mailbox for communication with Wendy after they renewed their acquaintance during a visit to China several years earlier.

Carpenter goes into hiding in an obscure Washington hotel. Meanwhile, Penny has learned of her husband’s clandestine meeting with Wendy and moved out of their house.

Encouraged by Myra, Carpenter seeks the help of the country’s top criminal lawyer, Jules Berkovits, a fondly portrayed Alan Dershowitz-clone. Berkovits immediately understands that if he were identified as Carpenter’s attorney, it would result in public presumption of Carpenter’s guilt; and therefore he insists on remaining behind the scenes.

Following a brief meeting between Carpenter and Wendy at the Chinese embassy, to and from which he is smuggled in a Chinese laundry van, the scientist prepares for his appearance.

The congressional hearings and the book come to a happy conclusion after testimony from Wendy and a surprise appearance by Carpenter’s mentor, the reclusive Dr. Herman Rocovsky, the grey eminence of American physics. Carpenter’s reputation is redeemed and the preeminence of American science is reestablished. Now Carpenter is rolling in money as his Hollywood contacts decide they need him for their movie, and Penny is happy to take him back.

If Mr. Wouk’s massive multi-part historical novels resemble full-course meals, “A Hole in Texas” is a light confection, but it demonstrates a master literary craftsman at work. His on-site research in rural Texas reveals itself in his description of the tunnels left over from the SSC, and the portraits of Waxahachie residents whose lives were impacted by the aborted project.

Mr. Wouk has also taken the opportunity to put into print some observations that have been percolating in his brain for years, as when Guy Carpenter reflects that the fashionable proto-beards on the faces of the Hollywood hype artists resemble Yasser Arafat’s perpetual stubble.

The decades the author has spent observing the comic sideshows that so often deflate Washington pomposity have inspired him to such true-to-life inventions as the pregnant stripper Bambi McFadden, who has filed a paternity suit against the national security advisor Homer Aptor.

The politicians’ motives and the final happy resolution may more closely mirror the politics of the post-sputnik era than the climate of ideological confrontation that marks early 21st-century Washington. Yet “A Hole in Texas,” with its farcical episodes and gently satirical approach, rewards the reader with the fruits of a long lifetime’s worth of experience and wisdom in the ways of the world.

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics and public issues ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.

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