Thursday, July 20, 2017

Book Review: Tom O'Bedlam

© 1985 by Robert Silverberg

A confession of ignorance: at first, I thought Tom O’Bedlam a terrible name for a novel (and I thought the cover somewhat lacking, too). But the premise as iterated on the back cover intrigued me. I bought it a few years ago, before my current Silverbergian infatuation, and it rode the On-Deck Circle for many, many moons. I finally picked it up a week ago, and, like usual when it comes to this writer, I couldn’t put it down, reading as much as a hundred pages in two sittings.

Why ignorance? Well, my original intuition felt this post-apocalyptic novel’s title must mean society has devolved into a medieval mindset, and “O’Bedlam” meant “Of” the town / city / nation-state of “Bedlam.” Not so. The term does indeed date back to the medieval period, and it is a generic term referring either to an itinerant beggar or someone pretending to be an itinerant beggar.

Like Edgar, in King Lear. Which I read a year and a half ago!

Anyway, the eponymous Tom in this book is indeed an itinerant beggar, wandering aimlessly through a post-nuclear America. The coasts remain fairly intact, despite mass migration from the heartland after the “dustings” – radioactive clouds dropped upon crops by the enemy in a decades-ago conflict. Nothing lives in these regions, and on the borders roam scavengers, bandits, and worse. But society still functions well enough near the oceans that, for example, nestled in the forests of Northern California is a retreat house for those suffering psychiatric problems.

This book takes a form I enjoy very much: groups of characters isolated from each other, each with their own issues, concerns, and problems, slowly being funneled together at a climax that will involve all of them. We have a group of patients and doctors at the aforementioned retreat house. We have Tom. We have the gang of killers Tom falls in with. And we also have a failed anthropology student and his miserable wife drawn in to an apocalyptic – there’s that word again – cult numbering in the tens of thousands slowly marching up from Mexico with the goal of reaching the North Pole to welcome the “New Gods.”

Aside from the individualized day-to-day conflicts these groups face in semi-modern rebuilding 2103 AD, something very strange begins to happen. It starts with Tom – dreams of distant worlds, lush green worlds, worlds with multiple suns in the skies, then dreams of the inhabitants of these worlds, “eye” creatures, “crystalline” creatures, horned giants and flying ethereal things. It starts with Tom but soon every character in the book – and presumably every human being alive on the planet – has these dreams, every night, and then intruding visions during the day as the dreams become more and more personalized …

What does it all mean? What is Tom’s role in all this? – and he definitely plays a significant part. Is he a mere conduit for or the creator of these visions? Will the earth and mankind find redemption or condemnation through Tom?


Well, I liked it. Any book that’s a page turner is by default an A. But does Tom O’Bedlam reach that rarified stratosphere of A-plus-ness?

Uh, while a great read, one I enjoyed thoroughly, I can’t quite give it an A+. A strong and solid A, yes. A+, no. The only reason why not is the only fault I can find in the book: I found the ending too rushed. Way, way, too rushed. I can understand the fact that Silverberg is trying to convey the craziness of the Last Times. To a certain extent, the ending chapters work towards that. I can understand authorially not explaining the meaning of every detail, indeed, the very answers to the Why? questions I asked three paragraphs ago. My peeve was not knowing the fate of a good half-dozen characters, characters who to a pretty decent extent I empathized with. The paperback clocks in at 374 pages. At that length, why not extend it to 400 to fully flesh out the ending?

Well, far be it for me to judge the decisions of a writer as good as Silverberg. Seriously; I feel I’m nit-picking. The book is a solid A and falls somewhere in the middle of the pack of novels I’ve read from him (now up to fourteen or fifteen, I reckon).

Next on deck: I think I’ll tackle one of Silverberg’s later novels, one I read about twenty years ago, The Face of the Waters. Tonally I think that’ll be a lot like Tom O’Bedlam, and perhaps I’ll do a mashup of the two once I’m done with the re-read.

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