By Homer H. Hickam Jr.
368 pp., $23.95
'Rocket Boys" is a memoir of Homer Hickam's high school years in Coalwood, an aptly named town in southern West Virginia. A company town, Coalwood is dominated by the local coal mine, where the author's father, an anti-union company man, is the mine's superintendent.
"Sonny" Hickam is 14 years old when the Soviet Union launches its Sputnik satellite, an event that proves to be a watershed for a boy who, unlike most of his working-class peers, is more interested in reading science fiction than playing football.
As a result of Sputnik, Sonny becomes fascinated with rocketry. In a burst of youthful curiosity and patriotic fervor, he and a small group of friends, who achieve local celebrity as the "Rocket Boys," try their hand at launching their own homemade rockets.
While his first launch succeeds only in burning down his mother's garden fence, Sonny and his friends keep firing rockets with increasing success, experimenting with their rocket design and fuel mixture. After some early mishaps, they set up a launch pad on an abandoned dump site outside of town and dub it "Cape Coalwood."
The Rocket Boys prove to be an extraordinarily resourceful bunch. They raise money selling scrap metal and wild ginseng, fashion a communications system for their launch site out of old telephones, and teach themselves trigonometry so they can measure the range of their launches.
Eventually, even the town gets into the act, as machinists at the mine manufacture casements and nozzles for the rockets. The launches gain publicity and large crowds.
By the end of the story, their rockets reach heights of several miles, and their work wins a gold medal at the National Science Fair in Indianapolis in 1960.
While the story of enterprising, small-town kids teaching themselves rocketry, which is the heart of "Rocket Boys," is thoroughly captivating, the book as a whole is weak. Those parts that aren't concerned with rocket building - family conflicts, coming of age, life in West Virginia, among other themes - are far less interesting and hardly worth recounting at book length.
But the biggest problem with "Rocket Boys" is the writing. The author, a retired NASA engineer, has high literary ambitions, but scant literary skills. Worst is his penchant for replaying his life as a series of quaint vignettes, shaping each episode like a scene from a made-for-TV movie, complete with wooden dialogue, stock characters, snappy one-liners, cute bits of business, and phony emotional highs and lows. (He frequently resorts to using exclamation points and italics, rather than well-chosen words, to let the reader know that something exciting is happening.)
He also has a tendency toward heavy description, but since he lacks an eye for telling detail, the charm of the central story is diluted by trivialities.
Hickam is most successful in the first and last chapters of "Rocket Boys." In the first, he sets the stage, briefing the reader on his family and life in Coalwood. In the epilogue, he gives a recap of his life and career after high school, and fills the reader in on the lives of other characters in his story.
In both chapters, Hickam employs a simple, straightforward style, unencumbered by superfluous dialogue and artificial drama. It's too bad he didn't use the same technique in the rest of the book.
* David Conrads is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo.