Paperback Club: "Warday" (1984)
Now you have to learn how to read.
In the mid-90s, when I was growing up in Delaware, my parents would spent part of the summer at a “beach house” that was not particularly close to a beach. Like a lot of middle-class vacation homes near Rehoboth Beach, it was inland, on swampy land churned into a damper version of the developments we suburbanites were used to. We owned a second-floor condo with a view of a parking lot on one side, and some brush on the other.
Naturally, I loved it, mostly because it gave some new setting to explore without really rocking my sensibilities. There was a clubhouse in the condo complex, with a TV that was either playing tennis, golf, or nothing; and, through a door in that room, a small library of what usually get cold “beach books.” Romance novels. Richard Marcinkos’s “Rogue Warrior.” Various schlock by Pat Conroy. Hardcover and paperback editions of “The Stand.” James Bond novels written by whoever “Cubby” Broccoli chained to the typewriter after Ian Fleming died. A hospital-pristine copy of Dan Quayle’s “Standing Firm.”
It was here that I found “Warday,” or “Warday and the Journey Onward” — only the first composite word was embossed on the cover. If a hit sci-fi novel doesn’t get turned into a movie, it might disappear from the zeitgeist, and that was the fate of “Warday.” I’d never heard of this 1984 look at America “after a limited nuclear exchange,” because it was the mid-90s — recall the Dan Quayle book — and that scenario was as far from my nightmares as it had been close to my parents’.
The book found me anyway. I read it in two days, and recently, after finding the copy I’d bought for myself, I read it in a few hours. Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka know how to pull you into a story, and the one they wrote takes an angle on nuclear war that I hadn’t seen before. It doesn’t destroy America. It just makes her weak, a third world country, depressed and sick and paranoid and pathetic. The nightmare isn’t the end on life on earth, but the completely avoidable end of American prestige. It’s the 80s, baby!
Strieber wrote fiction, mostly, and Kunetka was a historian who dabbled in novel-writing. If you are squinting at Strieber’s name and can’t place it, it’s probably because of “Communion,” the ostensibly non-fiction book he’d publish in 1987, about his experiences with the extraterrestrial, or “The Howling,” which got adapted into one of the best movies in the under-loved werewolf genre. They were hits. “Warday” was, too, though it was expected to be a bigger one. In November 1983, the New York Times reported that Strieber and Kunetka had sold their manuscript, “about the ways in which people manage to survive after a nuclear war,” for $460,000 — around $1.2 million in Biden Bucks. A movie adaptation, the paper reported, would be directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras.
Don’t bother checking: There never was a movie. The nuke-movie boom came and went fast, with five popcorn classics in 1983: “Silkwood,” “WarGames,” “The Day After,” “Testament,” and the less-remembered “Special Bulletin,” which was shot and edited like a live news report about the nuclear apocalypse. The Bomb only goes off in the last three of these movies, and they are, to this day, some of the most depressing things to put on screens.
Did Holt, Rinehart & Winston get what it paid for from Strieber and Kunetka? Sure: The book landed on April Fools Day, 1984, and plopped onto the NYT bestseller list to stay for a while. Like a lot of Reagan-era nuke-taintment, it got loud praise from trustworthy-sounding people, like Ted Kennedy.
What it lacked was a real cultural imprint. Ronald Reagan gets re-elected in November 1984, and Gorby takes over the USSR four months later. In 1985, a CNN poll finds that three-quarters of Americans consider the USSR a “threat,” but only a third call it a “serious” threat. Media interest in the "nuclear freeze” moment falls off a cliff that year, and before long the leaders of the First and Second worlds are signing treaties, de-escalating the Cold War, swords into plowshares, all that good stuff. Generation X is the last one to grow up with a nuclear nightmare — a real one, not “let’s pretend Kim Jong Il is a supervillain.”
“Warday” opens with a “survivor’s tale,” written by Whitley, the fictional avatar of our co-author, who’s in a purple mood. “To be born now is no guarantee that you will not be touched by Warday,” he writes. “Indeed, birth makes it certain.” He is dying, and so are you, the reader of this universe where in 1988 the Russians launch a limited nuclear strike and the Europeans stab us in the back.
Before any details of what happened on Warday — Oct. 28, for those who celebrate — Whitley contemplates his final stock statement. “I have sat staring for hours at the anachronistic names,” he tells us. “Raytheon, General Foods, American Motors, Dow Chemical. I got eighteen gold dollars in the distribution of '90. How ironic that nine hundred paper dollars will now buy a house. In 1987 you could spend more on a suit.”
We’re in, both on the narrative and the mindset Whitley’s bringing to it. The eighties weren’t great, but you’d miss ‘em if you got nuked. Or not quite nuked, as the “limited” strike takes out Queens, the farm belt inconveniently located underneath a bunch of America’s silos, and San Antonio. It could have been worse, and it’s unimaginably bad.
When Whitley and Jim link up, the journey begins, style switching from chapter to chapter. They deploy four styles, specifically: First-person narration, interviews relayed to us as first-person monologues, official government documents, and “rumors.” There are just a few of that last category, near the end of the book, combining quotes from fictional people (Verna McDuff, Joan R. Hamner) about post-nuclear monsters or places they’ve heard about, with FACT corrections from the authors.
Our narrators are know-it-alls, and they write similarly, though Whitley has a death sentence — too much absorbed radiation on War Day. They are both in their 40s with “white hair,” which to a 1984 audience means premature aging. There’s good pathos in this early section, and some writing about food that grounds us. These are people who, as Jim recalls, “ate dandelion leaves during the famine,” and will never know plenty again. “Our eggs are small and brown, from our own bantam hens,” writes Whitley, on the way out of town. He parts with his son, who “learned at the library how to recognize edible plants.”
Good world-building, poured on thick. “The death of friends no longer surprises,” Whitley says. He looks at Jim, who has “killed to stay alive,” and “took the classic photograph of the stacks of dead burning in Eden Park.” There are pages and pages like this, unrelenting grimness designed to transport you from the airport you bought it from.
All of the first-person chapters are like this, with some adventuring and setbacks. Post-War Day California has sealed itself off and implemented gestapo-level ID checks; Chicago has shrunk down to a business district in the loop. Our heroes get their interviews, written in different voices, sometimes purely as info dumps. (“To communicate the extent of health problems in Texas,” says a British aid worker, “it is only necessary to talk about birth rates.”)
There is a dwelling on money and loss of prestige. A poll plunked in the middle of the book finds most Americans skeptical that their country will become a superpower again, though a trendline shows them getting more optimistic. It’s the post-war famine and plague that really wrecks everything, and there’s far less about spooky nuclear fallout than crippling poverty, where a can of corned beef hash is something Manhattan salvagers can pay for “between the ten of us.”
I re-read all this last month, and was surprised at how much had stuck in my memory. There were no really memorable phrases written to be memorable, even though Jim and Whitley try for something profound in every first-person section. The little journalistic details were memorable, for the same reasons you can imagine Ivan Denisovich’s soup forever after you put that book down. Chunks of “War Day” don’t work, just as chunks of a newspaper — sorry to do this to myself — aren’t that interesting. But enough of it is.
Good thing we never had that war. “War Day” is the most head-bangingly literal World War III novel I’ve ever read, and the journalistic mixed-media style gives it weight even when the monologues start to float away. You can see why no studio decided to take this and $40 million and throw together the decade’s most depressing movie. Did I mention that Jim and Whitley are Vietnam veterans? See? Too much, even for a half-decade that made a hit out of “The Day After.'“
I’ve read stylistic successors to “War Day,” but it’s never been clear if those books borrowed the structure or built it independently — Jim and Whitley as Newton, Max Brooks as Leibniz, using fake oral history to renovate the zombie genre. I’ve seen mediocre versions, too, like “2084,” which takes us to a dried-up future earth where the worst climate disasters all played out. Even there, the exercise enriched the material. Anyone can CGI up a blast from a neutron bomb, sending skin and fridges flying. A future where you’ll cry at the memory of cheap beef and paper stock reports? That’s writing.