Book Review by Steve Solomon

Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon

by Jim Paul

Harcourt Brace (Harvest) 1991, 256 pages (paper).

What do you get when you take a 2.5-billion-year-old piece of quartzite and two guys who like to throw rocks into the water, and then add a $500 grant from a California arts center? Well, if the guys in question are San Francisco-based author Jim Paul and his mechanical-genius buddy Harry, you get Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon.

A friend of mine who has read most of my book reviews has complained about my supposed over-use of the word "fun," so I regret to report that the despised term applies to this book, too. There's just no way around it; Catapult  is a very witty, entertaining, humorous book, and to my way of thinking, that equates to fun. Perhaps I may be pardoned because the author himself admits (to himself and his readers, if not to the staff of the Headlands Center for the Arts) that fun was his main motivation in building a working catapult and using it to fire rocks off the cliffs of the Headlands.

Yes, you read correctly. Jim and Harry actually build and fire a catapult, then give a public presentation about the experience. And although Harry will strenuously deny it later, both he and Jim obviously do have fun resurrecting an extinct siege engine. Perhaps the chief source of humor in this book is the competitve, argumentative, archetypically male  friendship of Jim and Harry, as illuminated by the demands of their unusual project: His imagination fired by an airline employee's characterization of his chunk of quartzite as a "weapon," Jim decides it would be "fun" to build a catapult. For this endeavor, writer Jim (who lists a paragraph and a sandwich as things he has "made" recently) needs the help of the handy but reluctant Harry. The wily author secures Harry's assistance by maneuvering his friend into betting that Jim can't get a grant to build a working stone-thrower--but Jim can and does, so Harry's in. Later on, when the partners need to cut an I-beam into sections to serve as mounts for their catapult springs, Harry takes great glee in scaring Jim by talking about the dangers of using an acetylene torch. Naturally, the more Harry gloats and the more impatient he becomes with his friend's amateurish attempts at tool use, the more determined Jim becomes to do his part without help. Harry is a character of considerable comedic potential in and of himself, quite apart from his interactions with Jim. The topic of Harry's very Americanized take on the practice of kyudo, the Japanese art of Zen archery, ranks among the brightest of the book's many comic gems.

Someone--Groucho Marx, perhaps?--once said that watching the antics of an eccentric is not nearly as funny as watching someone else react to those antics. This "observer" principle comes into play often in Catapult  in the form of the reactions of third parties to Jim and Harry's project. These reactions run the gamut from the growing annoyance of Jim's girlfriend and Harry's wife, to the blandness of Jim's seen-it-all accountant (for whom the matter is simple: Jim's an author, so if he's writing about building a catapult, the costs are tax deductible), to the surprising enthusiasm of a female park ranger who observes Jim and Harry firing their siege engine. Often Jim has the uncomfortable feeling that he and Harry are being humored, and of course he's often right.

Opponents of literary levity will no doubt be gratified to learn that not everything in Catapult is fun. For example, the pain of the author's unhappy relationship with his father is evident. Moreover, as the book progresses, a sense that there is something sinister about the catapult project becomes increasingly plain, despite the author's continued fine use of humor. Jim Paul has deftly interwoven chapters on the history of projectile weapons with his account of his experiences. (In fact, when I looked for this book in a large chain store, I was surprised to find it shelved, not under Literature, but under Military History.) One of these chapters, "The Warwolf," recounts the strange and chilling story of how King Edward I of England succumbed to the cruel fascination radiated by an enormous trebuchet constructed for his war against the Scots, and allowed that fascination to lead him to commit what we would now term a war crime. Even more unsettling is the chapter entitled "The Destruction of the Second Temple," concerning Rome's conquest of Jerusalem. Jim Paul's scathing account of the Roman atrocities and his excoriation of Josephus, Jewish historian and Roman collaborator, are marked by a vehemence I have come to associate with denunciations of Hitler and the Nazis. By this point in the story, the book's subtext--the terrible fascination weapons exert on the human imagination--has become unmistakable. Though Jim and Harry's catapult is used for nothing truly violent, it is clear that the impulse to build it springs from something darker than the simple fun of throwing rocks into the water.

Nonetheless, I would be doing Catapult  a disservice to end my review on this grim note, because the book itself does not end this way. Moreover, I have yet to mention the wonderful turns of phrase Jim Paul scatters with indiscriminate generousity throughout his work: whether he is describing the way a steel leaf spring "screamed and flung a furious fan of sparks over Harry's feet" under the wheel of a chop-saw or the "mental squirm" that accompanies writing a check you fear you may not be able to cover, he never fails to conjure up marvelous images in the reader's mind. Always fascinating, by turns frightening and fun--yes, fun--Catapult  is a reading experience not to be missed.

Edited August 23, 1998

Copyright ©1998 by Steven R. Solomon. All rights reserved.
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