Alas, Babylon

Alas, Babylon Summary and Analysis of Chapters 3 and 4


The beginning of chapter 3 introduces Edgar Quisenberry, president of the First National Bank of Fort Repose. Even though the bank has other staff, it is basically just a one-man bank; all transactions have to go through Edgar first. Edgar is not pleased when Randy Bragg rushes in with a check for 5,000 dollars and asks to cash it immediately; he refuses to sign off on the transaction once he sees it is from Mark, whom he hates even more than Randy.

Randy complains that Edgar knows his brother's check is good, and that he endorsed it, but Edgar insists stubbornly that Mark does not have an account there and it would be bad banking practice for him to hand Randy 5,000 dollars cash and then wait for it to be cleared all the way from his bank in Omaha. When Randy threatens to go cash it somewhere else, Edgar recognizes that this could be good business lost, and he finally gives Randy the cash and demands Randy tell him why he needs it. Randy says he made a bet with Mark; Mark bets that checks won't be worth anything shortly, but cash will. He leaves.

Randy heads to the supermarket first; he typically has a habit of racing through the store to get everything he needs as quickly as possible, but today is different. He spends time purchasing the things he, Helen, and the kids will need, shocking the cashier, Pete Hernandez, with his sheer amount of items. Once back home, he considers whether or not he should tell the Henrys, Missouri's family, about the disaster approaching.

He finally decides that the best one to tell is Malachai, brother to Missouri's husband Two-Tone. Malachai shocks Randy when he says he wouldn't be surprised if an attack does come, because he's kept up with the news. Malachai thinks there's nothing they can do but wait, and even so, they've got something no one else has that can help them survive: an unlimited supply of artesian water from the ground that can't be contaminated, set up years before by Randy's grandfather. Randy gives Malachai 200 dollars for the Henrys to use in case of emergency.

Lib McGovern comes over, telling him that she thinks he should move to somewhere a little bit more exciting and start new, and she will follow and marry him if he gets a good job. Randy decides he needs to tell her, too, what's coming. Before he can, Randy's best friend, Dr. Dan Gunn, comes in, too, to talk to Lib about her mother, Lavinia McGovern, who has diabetes. At last, Randy breaks the ice and tells them that there's a nuclear attack on the horizon. Dan makes preparations immediately, thinking about the, medicines that he would need, and Randy tells Lib to return home to warn her mother and father.

Just after Lib leaves, Florence Wechek and Alice Cooksey watch as Randy stares around the street with binoculars, assuming that he's spying on them as usual; however, it turns out that he was simply watching Florence's bird because he thought it was a rare, supposedly extinct Carolina parakeet. He's a birdwatcher, not a spy.

Chapter 4 begins with Helen Bragg, saying goodbye to Mark in the airport. He will be going down into the Hole, the nuclear shelter for the Air Force in Omaha, but his family isn't allowed to come. Back in Fort Repose, Randy purchases some last-minute essentials. In the Eastern Mediterranean, things are not well; war is brewing.

Randy makes a stop at the McGovern house, certain that Lib would need his help explaining to her parents what was going on. Bill McGovern, her father, insists that while they might have a small brush war, no one will use atomic bombs. Unable to reason with them, Randy leaves, and goes home to listen to the news where he hears that U.S. military aircraft have bombed the important Syrian harbor of Latakia in the eastern Mediterranean.

Perspective switches to Mark, who goes to the War Room at the Air Force base in Omaha to discuss the news. It turns out that the bombing of Latakia had been an accident; an American jet had fired on an enemy plane and missed, hitting the port. The rest of the world would assume they'd done it on purpose. The most worrisome thing, though, is that the Russian government in Moscow has yet to say anything about the attack; they've been completely silent. When they're silent, Mark and the others are worried that they're about to act.

Randy goes to pick up Helen, Peyton, and Ben Franklin from the airport in the early hours of the morning and tells them what happened in the Mediterranean. The children are, by this point, hardened to war, so the news doesn't faze them. Back in Omaha, still waiting to hear anything from Moscow, Mark gets news of three unidentified submarines headed for the Atlantic coast. They decide to phone the president to get permission to use the nation's own nuclear weapons if necessary.


The threat of war looming over Fort Repose dictates all of Randy's decisions in these chapters, as he cashes his checks, shops for food and supplies, and tries to choose whom to pass along Mark's warning to. It is clear that the threat of impending attack was enough to snap Randy out of the stupor he has been in since he lost his election. Now that he has been entrusted with both life-saving information and his brother's family, his role in this struggle has been outlined explicitly, and he is prepared to do whatever he has to not to let Mark down. Randy's true character begins to show in these chapters devoted entirely to preparation.

His relationship with Lib begins to develop, also. Her visit to his house to tell him to move to a large, exciting city because this place is no good for him shows that she has been perceptive of his unhappiness, and the willingness she expresses to follow him wherever he goes shows that she wants this relationship to become more serious. However, both Randy and Lib have some maturing to do throughout the course of the novel, and it is clear that there is still much they have to learn about each other. These chapters set the stage for a relationship that is sure to develop more as time goes on.

Lib's father's refusal to believe a disaster is coming is reflective of most American citizens' complacency during the Cold War, a time where the threat of nuclear war was very real and too few people took it seriously. Through his characterization of Bill McGovern, Pat Frank condemns this viewpoint; Frank clearly believes that preparedness for a war of this magnitude is essential, and even if an attack does not ultimately occur, it is far better to be safe than sorry.

Helen's permitting Randy to talk about the war in front of her children also says a lot about the kind of information that reached children's ears during this time period. While most parents undeniably wanted to protect their children from talk of nuclear attacks and atomic bombs, it was simply impossible to do so.

The 20th century began with wars more massive than the world had ever seen before, World Wars I and II, and continued with the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War conflict. Helen says, "all their lives, they've lived under the shadow of war—for them the abnormal has become normal." These children knew of nothing else, and in many instances it was better that they understand it, accept it, and prepare for it than grow up ignorant.

The accidental nature of the bombing of the Syrian port also emphasizes the role that randomness and chance play in war. Sometimes a small, mistaken action can begin a chain reaction and eventually lead to something bigger and much more terrible than anyone desired. This mistake is clearly meant to initiate the Soviet nuclear attack and illustrate that sometimes all it takes is a single slip to start a war.

Alas, Babylon's subtle but poignant exploration of race relations begins in these chapters as readers learn more about the Henry family, Randy's black neighbors. In the face of impending disaster and in its aftermath, all residents of Fort Repose will have to cooperate, and the gap between black and white must be bridged in order to survive. By warning Malachai about the attack in advance and providing him and his family means by which to survive, Randy makes an essential ally out of the Henry family.