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for people who care about the West

Thirteen ways of looking at a mushroom cloud

 

Friendly Fallout 1953
Ann Ronald
248 pages, hardcover: $24.95.
University of Nevada Press, 2010.

Friendly Fallout 1953
, Nevada writer Ann Ronald's latest exploration of place, is itself an experiment in fission -- the literary kind. Set at Nevada's Proving Ground, the book splits the telling of history among 12 fictional characters -- plus Ronald herself -- who witness the detonations of 11 very real nuclear bombs. A hardboiled journalist takes in the first, highly publicized detonation (codenamed "Annie"): "an exquisite rage, a beast simultaneously beautiful and brutal"; a Vegas dancer, inflamed with patriotism, pirouettes before the rainbow glow of "Badger"; and an earnest soldier runs into the fallout of "Grable."

Poignantly, the novel depicts an exuberant naiveté, filled with the euphoria the tests ignited even in skeptical witnesses. Dennis, a radiation specialist, "loves the moment of impact, that instant when night turns to day and the whole world trembles. Like an orgasm. A quiver of explosive ecstasy that lasts and lasts and lasts." And a Mormon mother, apocalypse on her mind and a baby in her arms, can't turn away from her backyard view of Dirty Harry's "ebony whorls." Even the physicists are enraptured: "For me, it's the beauty of nuclear power," one confesses. "Watching the incredible sequences of colors and omnipotent might. It's like seeing God."

Actual fallout remains nebulous, however, a threat lurking just off the book's pages. In the Cold War milieu, discussions of the risk of nuclear testing quickly bow to proclamations of patriotism: "We're here at the Rock, helping make America safe," the soldier says proudly, "and those Utah people ought to be proud of their contribution too."

Opposition is expressed only in one vignette, in which a sheep farmer loses nearly 800 lambs to grotesque birth defects. Rather than editorialize, Ronald lets the reader fill in the blanks with a 21st century fear of fallout and the sad knowledge of the danger besetting the witnesses.

In Friendly Fallout 1953, Ronald takes risks with form as well as subject, hinting that this imaginative remembering is virtually a work of nonfiction. The result is provocative. Ronald has reassembled an era that can seem incredible to those who did not live it, one that simultaneously fostered the narrow-minded fear behind McCarthyism and the wild imagination -- and absolute gall -- it took to create and blithely detonate unthinkable weapons, even on friendly soil.