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Festival of Reading

Atomic angst at critical mass

Humans and nukes in a toxic relationship are catalysts for two lovers - and, by implication, humanity - to adjust to a frightening new reality.

Published October 27, 2005


Much of Bobbie Ann Mason's fiction has been anchored in place, its plots and characters growing organically out of the western Kentucky towns she has lived in most of her life.

Not so An Atomic Romance, her first novel in 12 years. Its setting is an unnamed riverside city, somewhere in the United States.

"It was very deliberate," Mason says by phone from her home near Lexington, Ky. "I wanted to dislocate it. I didn't want people to think it was something that happened in some little remote town that didn't have any effect on them.

"I wanted it to feel like it could happen anywhere, because it could."

"It" is the discovery that a uranium enrichment plant essential to the local economy has been dangerously sloppy about disposing of its hazardous waste. Blue flames flicker from scrap metal heaps in the nearby wildlife refuge, and the plant's workers are beginning to show symptoms of beryllium poisoning.

One of those workers is the novel's main character, Reed Futrell. A mechanical engineer at the plant, he calls himself a "cell rat" because he crawls into the belly of the machinery to repair it.

Reed is 40-something, divorced, smart, sexy, a little dreamy; he rides a Harley and is good to his mother and sounds almost too good to be true.

But don't mistake An Atomic Romance for a bodice-ripper romance.

For one thing, Reed's steamy love affair with Julia, a prickly biologist, is a role reversal of sorts. Julia is the one who doesn't return phone calls and shies from commitment; Reed frets over their relationship and treasures every moment with her.

Mason says, "In the old romances from the age of chivalry, it was the knight who was off on a mission to win the lady's hand. It wasn't the female being romantic."

An old-fashioned romance was the farthest thing from her mind, anyway. "This is a love story with a setting of toxic waste. This is the world we live in. It's edgy, it's uncertain. And we have to find ways of coping with what's going on."

An Atomic Romance was sparked by an article Mason wrote for the New Yorker in 2000 about plutonium contamination around a nuclear plant in Paducah, Ky., near her hometown of Mayfield.

"That got me into the subject. I was just fascinated with the idea: What in the world would it be like to work there?"

Mason, 65, has tackled topical material in her fiction before. Her 1985 novel In Country was an unflinching portrait of Vietnam veterans and the aftereffects of the war on them and their families.

An Atomic Romance is likewise grounded in the impact political and corporate decisions have on individuals. "It's not political in the sense of urging the reader to action," Mason says, "but it's not neutral."

Reed and Julia have very different ways of looking at the world, and Mason uses the novel's scientific milieu to embody those differences. Reed is fascinated by astronomy; he daydreams about galaxies and runs a slide show of planets on his computer's screen saver. Julia works in a cytopathology lab, tracking the microbial sources of disease.

"She's challenging him to go to the subatomic level, to change direction" from the abstract to the specific, Mason says. "He's a dreamer. The other direction is a little too scary for him."

Julia also challenges Reed to face the peril of having been exposed to radioactive material on the job. Although his father died in a horrific accident at the plant when Reed was a boy, he shrugs off the dangers.

"He's in denial. I think that's pretty typical," Mason says. "I talked to a lot of people in those situations, and they want the job, they're making good money. Or maybe they don't make good money, but they need the job."

Mason's earlier fiction, including In Country and Shiloh and Other Stories (1982), was tagged "Kmart realism" by critics because of its accretion of name-brand detail about the lives of its working-class, often rural characters.

Name brands like McDonald's and Pepsi are pretty much absent from An Atomic Romance, and Mason says that was "a deliberate choice. The characters in the earlier stories lived in a different world. Those things were significant to them.

"In In Country, Emmett came back from Vietnam and he craved Pepsi all the time. But that's what really happened. Guys got addicted to the sugar and the caffeine in that situation, that climate."

As for Reed and Julia, she says, "They couldn't care less (about logos and brand names). They're more educated. They have more money. Not enough money to be thinking about Tiffany and Gucci, but still."

Although An Atomic Romance is Mason's first novel since Feather Crowns in 1993, she hasn't taken a break from writing.

Her 1999 memoir, Clear Springs: A Family Story, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She published Elvis Presley, a biography of the quintessential Southern icon, in 2002, and two collections of short stories, Midnight Magic in 1998 and Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail: Stories in 2001.

"I find fiction so much easier and more fun to write than nonfiction," she says. "Of course, there was a lot of research to do to make this story plausible. But you have a lot more freedom."

Mason says she enjoys creating the rich imagery that carries a novel like An Atomic Romance forward. Movies are a frequent metaphor; Reed often pictures himself in a movie and has dramatic, movielike dreams.

Mason says, "That's because the movies are the only real reference point we have for understanding atomic bombs and their aftermath, whether it's newsreels or horror films like Godzilla.

"That's the kind of thing I love to play with."


Bobbie Ann Mason, author of An Atomic Romance, appears at 1:45 p.m. in Davis Hall 104. She will sign books at 2:30 in Authors Alley South.

[Last modified October 26, 2005, 11:03:04]

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