on Feb. 4, 2012 :
“The Steam Tunnels” by Steven Hager
This is a painful entry in the journals of youth—a direct, autobiographical transcription of a familial and generational war, recorded in the penultimate year of 1967, when the forces on both sides of the generation gap assembled for a great face-off. It is perhaps difficult for anyone who did not live through that period to understand just how high the emotions were running on both sides (Get a God-damn haircut!) America was a land of a thousand contradictions (and dances!) whose myths were being put to the test.
Blake Moore is a young man on fire: in love with books and ideas, and he has the great electric current of the 1960’s running through him at full voltage. His mentor is a slightly older classmate named Wesly Pinter, a rebellious semi-delinquent who functions as Huckleberry Finn to Blake’s Tom Sawyer. Pinter introduces Blake to some of the usual ways of teenage rebellion, but he also tells his intrigued and impressionable young friend about a mysterious secret: the existence of the steam tunnels that run underground beneath the entire town, offering an irresistible lure waiting to be discovered, and they are soon exploring the tunnels together. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect metaphor: the tunnels are a labyrinth—a great seething subconscious—affording a clandestine access to key places and buildings throughout the town—as the forces of the underground break through the thin crust of a complacent America, and literally through the cracks of academia as the forces of the burgeoning youth culture swell like lava through the crumbling monuments of the old society.
My favorite moment of the story is when Blake’s father catches him late one night in bed, hiding under the covers surreptitiously reading something with a flashlight. The father bursts into the room in a rage and tears back the blankets, perhaps expecting to find his son reading pornography or some other typical teenage interest: he grabs the book out of his son’s hands and is taken aback for a brief instant: the book is Moby Dick—our greatest American novel. This is a telling moment—the father onslaught is halted momentarily by this discovery—it wasn’t what he expected. His murderous rampage is slowed for a moment—but only for a moment—as he perhaps realizes that his son’s world is deeper and more complex than he assumed.
This very brief little story—its almost a book proposal, really—begs to be expanded and fleshed out into a full length novel. I want more: I want to read about Blake/Hager and his cronies in full battle mode—propelled through the tunnels by mad counter-cultural fuel—rising up from the underground (yes, like steam!) and breaking through into the consciousness of America in 1967. I want to explore the steam tunnels along with Blake—following all the twists and turns, and secret chambers, and I want to be with them as they break into the university!
We can hope that Hager may someday want to revisit this little sketch and turn it into something bigger. This story captures the pressures and violence—both physical and emotional—of a not too atypical family caught up in the turmoil of a radically changing America in the indelible year of 1967. Peace, man!
(reviewed 5 days after purchase)