CATAPULT, Jim Paul’s first book, unites in clear, well-written prose a poet’s sensitivities with a man’s fascination with rocks, weaponry, gadgetry, history, the technologies of weapons of destruction, and the challenges of male bonding. Paul, having collected a piece of Red Creek quartzite while on a writing assignment in Utah and contemplated its age (two and a half billion years), begins an odyssey that will lead him and his friend Harry to the creation of a working catapult. The idea comes as a whim but quickly becomes a sustained, often ironic, sometimes comic, contemplation of how the technology of weaponry began with the basic desire to extend the reach of the human hand, to hit other humans at greater distances and with greater impact.

Paul moves the narrative deftly from conceiving the project to grappling with the details of acquiring funding, materials, and the skills to put it together all the way to a glorious morning on the Marin Headlands when Paul and Harry launch dozens of boulders into the Pacific—or so it seems. Along the way Paul intersperses chapters on the siege of Jerusalem by Pompey, the destruction of the Second Temple by Herod, the siege of Stirling castle by King Edward I, the invention of the Bessemer process for producing steel, and the creation the atomic bomb—all skillfully connected to perceptive insights on the nature of friendship, competition, and war. After successfully firing the catapult, they hike down the headland to see exactly where the rocks have landed—and discover a nudist beach. The conjunction of bare—and vulnerable human beings—with the technologies of war provides a wonderfully wry comment on humanities propensities for waging war.