The Cold War is ironically one of the most ludicrous yet perversely understandable events in human history. Male chest blustering at the largest scale possible, massive collections of the most destructive weapons the world has ever known stood passcode and red button ready to be launched at the perceived enemy. Expanding on the ludicrous nature of the situation, James Morrow’s 1986 This Is the Way the World Ends is Cold War satire of the most absurd, surreal bent—and yet, relatable.
George Paxton is an ordinary guy living an ordinary life in small town Massachusetts. Husband and father, the light of his life is his five-year old daughter, Holly. The world seemingly on the brink of war, scopa suits (suits designed to protect the individual from nuclear attack) are all the rage. The price of one scopa suit more than George and his wife can afford, when he receives a favor in return for a nice turn for a customer, he decides to do what any loving father would do for his daughter: he cashes in on a scopa suit. Trouble is, in order to receive the goods, he has to sign on the dotted line that he is complicit in the ongoing cold war.
Satire largely standing on the sidelines and taking pot shots at whatever easy targets present themselves, This Is the Way the World Ends takes its cynicism beyond obvious political folly and into the universal morality of war mongering. Putting on trial the weapons designers, government officials, jingoists, drum beaters, and assorted persons directly and indirectly supporting the cold war, all sides of the issue are aired in an icy, makeshift courtroom in laugh-out-loud-because-it’s-all-too true fashion. Rev. Swallow and his doomsday sermons, General Wegnerook and his misguided negotiations, George Paxton for signing on the dotted line, and others must stand before a panel of judges and be tried for their part in nuclear hostilities.
Sharp like a knife, Morrow is conscious of every word he places on the page, and the words he chooses cut straight to the absurdity, reality, and heartbreak of the American-Soviet Cold War. While the Cold War would fizzle just a few years after publication, the novel’s message is no less potent. Morrow chose an obvious target, but one that doesn’t seem to want to go away, and used the darkest of humor to engage the reader in getting the point across, again. A mix of Vonnegut, Ballard and something lexically of Morrow’s own, war satire doesn’t come much more effective.