Picks and Pans Review: Stallion Gate

updated 05/19/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/19/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Martin Cruz Smith

The author of the enormously successful Gorky Park has set this novel in New Mexico on the eve of the first atomic-bomb test in 1945. The hero is Sgt. Joe Peña, and if you can believe that such an unlikely character could exist, you'll enjoy every moment of Stallion Gate. Joe is a fighter, a jazz pianist, a skillful lover, a horseman, a humane guardian of old Indians and their beliefs—in short, a kind of superman whose late mother made pottery of museum quality. He is working for an evil captain who is in charge of security at the site where the A-bomb is being made and tested. Joe is supposed to spy on the scientists as well as serve as chauffeur and all-around man of countless physical skills. Many of the other characters are real historical figures: Gen. Leslie R. Groves, who was in charge of the project for the Army; Robert Oppenheimer, the genius physicist, and Klaus Fuchs, the notorious spy who worked on the project for a time and passed nuclear secrets to the Soviets. The fact that the reader knows a lot about these real people and the novel's climactic event is both an asset and a liability. There seems to be a lot of juicy inside information on a moment in history that changed the world; on the other hand the hero and his outsize abilities are virtually comic book in scale. But Smith is a skillful writer: His dialogue is fresh, his pacing unflagging. Much of the descriptive stuff is first-rate. Here is Oppenheimer as the project draws to a close: "Fatigue had worn away his cheeks. His shirt-sleeves were rolled up and showed wrists like straws. His entire body seemed to maintain a faint existence whose only purpose was to carry the painfully brooding skull." That's only one powerful image in a complex novel full of such moments. (Random House, $17.95)

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