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  • Written by Bobbie Ann Mason
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  • Written by Bobbie Ann Mason
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A Novel

Written by Bobbie Ann MasonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Bobbie Ann Mason

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-43063-2
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

This provocative, rollicking story is the much-anticipated new novel–the first in over a decade–from acclaimed author Bobbie Ann Mason. In An Atomic Romance we meet Reed Futrell, a sexy, thoughtful hero who grapples with radioactive contamination, a midlife crisis, and string theory–all while falling in love.

Reed is an engineer at a uranium-enrichment plant near a riverside city in heartland America. He has deep roots in this community: He was raised there; his father worked at the very same plant before him. And it was here that Reed met, married, and then divorced his wife. Reed spends countless nights camping at a local wildlife preserve, gazing at the stars, fishing and hunting–that is, until deformed frogs are discovered at the site. Though his father was killed in a tragic accident at the atomic plant years ago, Reed stays on, proud to perform demanding and dangerous work for the benefit of the nation. As for the radioactive “incidents” he has endured, Reed prefers to think about other things–Hubble photographs of distant galaxies, Albert Einstein, his dog.

Reed’s casual attitude toward danger infuriates his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Julia, as much as his quirky mind and muscular body intrigue her. Julia, a biologist, is truly Reed’s match–or maybe more than his match. They both are witty, curious, and fascinated by science. Indeed, their courtship began with banter about Stephen Hawking’s theories of space-time, and ever since it has been an up-and-down adventure of sexual attraction, intellectual game-playing, and long silences when Julia refuses to return Reed’s calls.

When news reports reveal evidence of radioactive pollution in the land surrounding the plant, Reed and Julia’s relationship faces an unprecedented challenge. In An Atomic Romance, Bobbie Ann Mason delivers a brilliant novel set against a backdrop of atomic power: a love story between a motorcycle-riding loner and an independent, strong-minded biologist; between the peaceful present in a typical American community and the nation’s violent nuclear past; and, finally, between a good man and the work he takes pride in, though it may be putting his life in danger.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter 1



Reed Futrell still went camping in the Fort Wolf Wildlife Refuge, but he no longer brought along his dog. One spring evening, after his shift ended, he raced home, stuffed his knapsack, loaded his gear onto his bike, and headed for the refuge. He was in one of the enigmatic moods that clobbered him from time to time, and when it struck—the way a migraine hammered some people—his impulse was to hop on his hog and run. Last fall, when one of these moods grabbed him, he rode hundreds of miles, to Larimer County, Colorado, where—in a hot tub at a spa—he came to his senses and felt like turning back home.

“Good boy, Clarence,” he had said to his collie-shepherd combo as he left the fenced yard and fastened the gate. “Lay low now. And be sweet—unless anybody tries to break in. You know what to do, killer.”

During the five-mile ride, he ignored the industrial scenery and the suburban tableaus and the trailer havens. He escaped the desolation of the outskirts quickly, pretending his hog was a Thoroughbred stallion. As he approached the wilderness, Reed tried to imagine that he was seeing the place for the first time, as if he were entering the unfolding present of the opening of a movie. He was watching, curious to see what might happen.

What anyone notices first about this vast, flat landscape is the fantastical shapes of rising white clouds—plumes and balloons and pillows of cloud, like fleecy foam insulation blown from a hose. When Hollywood filmed a frontier drama here, the source of the clouds remained just outside the frame of the Cinerama panoramas. A radiant green extended for miles, and the great mud and might of the river seemed unlimited. Even now, if you saw this landscape from a sufficient distance and you didn’t know better, you might imagine an untouched old-growth forest. The billowy puffs seem innocent. They are so purely white, it’s as though only dainty, clean ladies’ drawers could have been set aflame to produce them.

But now as the camera zooms in closer, you see that the green is crisscrossed by linked electric towers leading to a set of old gray buildings of assorted sizes—including Quonset huts and prefab mobile units. They are unprepossessing except for the largest two, which appear ample enough to house a fleet of C-5 transport aircraft. These two buildings, in chorus, emit a low roar, like the sound of a waterfall.

Now, the close-ups. The row of gleaming scrap heaps. The gate with the danger signs. The small building brightly decorated with yellow signs and festooned with yellow tape. One rusty pile of smashed barrels and girders and coils staggering to the height of a two-story building. From this mountain of metal, a ditch threads into a lagoon, where the still water is green and shiny. Other small lagoons are outlined with yellow ribbon.

A parking lot is filled with large metal canisters painted a pretty aqua color. They resemble gargantuan Prozac capsules. Thousands of them line the pavement. They are parked in geometric rows, like patient pupae waiting to become worms. Beyond the six-pack of cooling towers and the twin smokestacks, two tall construction cranes rise from a clearing on the edge of the wilderness, where a scrim of temporary fencing conceals a new act in an ongoing drama.

Reed’s motorcycle plugs along a gravel road, skirting the security perimeter, passing the tall scrap heap, then leaving the gray, humming village and easing into the solace of the woods, where campers and hunters, with their dogs and deer rifles and picnic coolers, have pursued the natural life for years. Boy Scouts have their roundups and jamborees here. Coon-dog clubs hold their field trials.

The wilderness sprawls toward the river. The road leads into the heart of this sanctuary, away from the string of high-voltage towers and the dancing plumes. Even the crash and gurgle of the invisible waterfall grows distant. But the luminescence of the place remains, brightening with the growing dusk.

Reed Futrell wound through a labyrinth of gravel roads, stirring up a dusting of memories. He had been coming to this place all his life. His uncle Ed taught him to fish here in the large ponds, long before the water began to turn strange colors. He killed his first—and only—buck here. He hunted squirrels with his cousins. He went on church picnics, although he belonged to no church. He probably had camped in this woods three hundred times.

He decided to camp near the levee, where he could hear the blasts from the tugboats towing barges of iron ore and coal. Leaving his bike near a clearing, he lit out through a stand of river birches. He followed his glimpses of the immense metal bridge that spanned the river. At the top of the levee, he squatted and let the last of the sunset happen, imagining it was coming out of him, that he had the power to make the sun go down. If the sun, flaming orange, was like the inferno inside him, the burning blaze of fear and desire, then perhaps he could drop it over the horizon as casually as a basketball. He rose to attention as the sun’s top rim sank. A haze of thin clouds spread above the horizon. A cool tinge in the air brushed his skin. A coal barge was gliding along, and he could see the tugboat captain on his perch. Reed had considered that way of life for himself at one time, a means of living without moorings.

At the levee, he was always aware of his maternal grandfather, who had worked with the Army Corps of Engineers building the levees and preparing the way for the marching towers of electricity that fed the gaseous-diffusion plant. Somewhere along the levee, Boyce Reed had been working on an erosion project, laying willow matting along the banks, when he fell ill with pneumonia. Whenever Reed came here, he was gripped by the vision of his grandfather suffering from fever and congestion while lying in his tent by the riverbank. He had been in the tent for three days before anyone realized how sick he was. He died in 1951, before Reed was born. Reed knew little about him, a pale man in a portrait on his mother’s mantel, so coming here was like a ritual connection. Reed did not have a line of men he was close to. His father, Robert Futrell, had died young, in 1964, when Reed was only six, in an accident at the plant. It was up to his uncles to teach him how to be a man. “This is the way your daddy always baited his hook,” they would say. Or, “He was the champion when it came to muzzle loading.” And “The Almighty broke the mold after he made Robert Futrell.” Reed felt he couldn’t live up to his father’s reputation, and it took years for him to realize that his uncles meant nothing personal.

In the growing darkness, he hiked briskly through the woods back to the spot where he had left his bike. He made his camp methodically, laying out one of his tarps on the ground and stringing the other among some tree branches for an overhead shelter. Then he smoothed off a place for his tent. Slamming the pegs with satisfaction, he anchored the base corners, then wormed the aluminum tubes through their little fabric tunnels. His pup tent sprang open like a flower unfolding on high-speed film.

He constructed a small fire and heated some beans, then unwrapped a chicken focaccia sandwich and snapped open a can of beer. He ate, watching the fire swell and turn colors. The warmth was pleasant. The air still held the mellow spring daytime smells of bloom and decay. The light from the plant blotted out much of the night, but he could see a faint smattering of the Milky Way and a few of the brighter stars. He thought he could make out Sirius. He liked to imagine dying stars, their enormous fires imploding or exploding. He tried, as he often did, to grasp the idea that the present moment did not exist in some star a million light-years off. It was not now there. Not even on Mars was it now. If that was true, it could be reversed, he thought. He and his fire and his tent did not exist from the vantage point of the star, or on Mars, at this moment—whenever that might be.

Viewing the stars, he always felt privileged to witness ultimate mystery, to be in it. The universe tantalized and affronted him, ripping him out of his own petty corner. As he ate, hypnotized by the fire, he listed in his mind all the things in his life that were good. His kids had jobs and weren’t in trouble, his ex-wife was satisfied, his mother was nestled in a senior citizens’ home. His dog didn’t have fleas.

But he had not seen Julia in six weeks. She came out here with him a couple of times, most recently on a freakishly fair day on the last of February. They picnicked in a meadow beside the ruins of Fort Wolf, the old munitions factory that had operated during World War II. It was one of his favorite places. The hulks of the ragged concrete walls were like the forlorn remnants of a castle. Two water towers, their brick and mortar crumbling, stood like bookends without books to hold. He cavorted with her, half-naked, shouting, “It can’t get any better than this!” In the sunny afternoon they wallowed around lazily on a flannel blanket. At night they snuggled in the pup tent (his double-pup tent, he told her when she questioned its size) and shook up the wilderness with riotous sex.

Still gazing at the fire, his sandwich now gone, he wandered into a reverie about Julia, trying to create a Top Ten list of sex-dates with her. But none of them could be relived in his mind. He couldn’t remember what she was wearing the last time he saw her. She said, “I can’t loiter. I’ve got an immunogenetics seminar to go to.” And after that, she did not answer the telephone messages he left.

Julia, who worked at a cytopathology lab, planned to save the world from sinister infectious diseases like Ebola and anthrax. Early in their relationship, not realizing how ambitious she was, he had suggested she go to nursing school. She good-humoredly dismissed his idea.

“I can stick people,” she said. “But I’d rather be in charge of a mental hospital than have to do a Foley or a rectal.”

“You’d rather hear about their cracked minds than look at their cracks,” he said.

She thought for a moment. “A cracked mind—I like that.”

Julia was from Chicago. He loved to hear her talk. Her sweet Scandinavian-Irish-Polish twang. Her sharp, precise sounds, her back-slanted A’s and rounded O’s. He missed her vowels. He missed her lip gloss. She used flavored lip gloss habitually and sometimes smeared it straight across, instead of following the natural lines, so that her mouth was a wide, glistening swath.

He would get his blood tested if she could be the one to stick him. He hadn’t had a complete physical in five years. He was a notorious procrastinator—with tinnitus and a thrumming lust that ran like a refrigerator, kicking on and off automatically.

The tree frogs were peeping a cacophony, in which he heard raucous machines and anxious melodies. He draped a blanket around him and fed the fire little twigs. He picked a tick from his scalp and dropped it into the flame. The sky was gathering clouds, and the stars were fading. The clouds moved swiftly. He couldn’t even see the Dippers. He had been to the Smoky Mountains one August during the Perseid meteor shower; it was dazzling, like fireworks, like the Big Bang. He tried to remember it now, but it was like trying to remember sex; you had to be there then. If there was no now there now, then there would be no then there now either.

Inside his tent, he sidled in and out of sleep, dreaming that Julia was with him. He dreamed that she telephoned a pizza parlor, and a machine voice told her, “Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line.”

A sound penetrated his sleep. In his semiwakefulness he thought he heard himself fart—a muffled, explosive blat that projected over toward the levee, as if his bowels were practicing ventriloquism. But he hadn’t heard himself fart that loudly in years. As a gentle rain began to fall, he sank back into sleep, with the soothing and hypnotic shush of the raindrops on the leaves.

In his dream, a car pulls up nearby and the engine shuts off. The headlights go off, but an interior light stays lit. The car seems to huddle between the shadows of the ancient water towers. The moon climbs high, but the driver of the car does not emerge. With spring peepers screaming out their courtship messages, the night seems welcoming. Hours pass. Then, near midnight, the car door opens once briefly, and a woman—indistinct in the dim light—slips out of the seat, shuts the door, and squats on the ground for a few minutes. Then she reenters the car, starts the engine and lets it run. Radio music blares. The car does not move from its spot in the shadows. The engine keeps running, with the dome light shining and the music playing until the car runs low on gas and begins to sputter. The engine dies. The light goes out. And the blast of the gun splinters the night calm. In a while, rain begins to fall softly.

Reed tries to awaken, but he feels paralyzed. He struggles fitfully, and then eases deeper into dream as his muscles release and he floats toward the car. He glimpses the ice-blue metal, burning like candles, between the water towers. He approaches cautiously, noticing that it is a luxury sedan, a nice city car, not the kind of vehicle a camper or hiker would be driving. Slopping his way through puddles, he reaches the car.

He stares through the broken window at the shattered face. She has fallen toward the wheel, but he can see half her face is ripped away, leaving a reddish-brown spaghetti sauce. She must have hit her temple at a slant. He does not need to open the door. He can see the revolver on the floorboard, a .38 special, its handle decorated with floral decals.

On the dashboard, fastened with tape, are pictures of children. Two boys and two girls. All of them little, smiling, in Halloween costumes, the least one in a bunny outfit, with long, erect ears.


From the Hardcover edition.
Bobbie Ann Mason|Author Q&A

About Bobbie Ann Mason

Bobbie Ann Mason - An Atomic Romance
Bobbie Ann Mason is the author of In Country, Clear Springs, Shiloh & Other Stories, and An Atomic Romance She is the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. She is writer-in-residence at the University of Kentucky, and lives with her husband, Roger Rawlings.
To schedule a speaking engagement, please contact American Program Bureau at www.apbspeakers.com  

Author Q&A

An interview with Bobbie Ann Mason

Q:
An Atomic Romance is your first novel in ten years. Readers have
come to expect your fiction to take place in a small town in Kentucky.
Why did you change the setting for this novel?

Bobbie Ann Mason: I deliberately set this in an indeterminate
place in the heart of the country to suggest that it could take place
anywhere in America. Not just the romance in this romantic comedy,
but the troubling hint of nuclear mischief that lies underneath
it, a threat that affects us all, wherever we live.
Q: What is an “atomic romance”?

BAM: The romance between Reed and Julia is fired by a shared
sense of wonder. They are essentially rational, looking to science to
answer their questions. They are open to possibility and fun. They
are entertained, not threatened by, the possibility of the indifference
of the universe. They play with the nature of the basic, and extreme,
contradiction of contemporary science: the order and design of the
Einsteinian universe vs. the randomness and indeterminacy of the
subatomic, found in quantum mechanics and string theory.

Q: Reed Futrell’s fascination with the cosmos is key to his character.
Why did you choose to immerse Reed in this unconventional
hobby?

BAM: Reed is a dreamer. He dreams of traveling through the cosmos
in his zippy little “Reedmobile,” freed from gravity and time.
He contemplates the images from the Hubble telescope. And he
tries to make sense of his own exposure to radioactive elements by
arranging on his computer screen images of the planets that those
elements were named for. The book is about aspiration, the yearning toward the ultimate.
People always want to find some higher meaning or transcendence,
especially nowadays, in our post-9/11 angst. Reed and Julia are more
attracted to Stephen Hawking’s questions about time and space than
they are to easy answers to who we are and why.

Q: Julia is the second player in this “romance.” Tell us a bit about
Julia. Do you admire her?

BAM: Although Julia is practical, no-nonsense, not caught up in
illusions, she dreams of making a scientific discovery that will cure
disease. She is sensual and vibrant, ready to have fun with string
theory or Hawking’s space-time. Julia says, “Who knows what
might be out there waiting to be discovered?” I love Julia. I like the
way she doesn’t care about her appearance and yet Reed finds her
so sexy. I like her confidence.

Q: An Atomic Romance sets Reed’s working life in opposition to his
love life. Why is Reed so dedicated to the plant?

BAM: Reed is proud of being a working man. Most of the characters
Reed encounters are seen while they are at work—the mini-mart
clerk Rosalyn, the gun shop owner Andy, Burl the Bobcat contractor,
and numerous others. Reed believes his job is important because he
helps maintain the safety of the plant. He works at a uraniumenrichment
facility, which prepares fuel for use at nuclear-power
plants. Formerly it made fuel for atomic bombs. During the Cold
War workers proudly contributed to national defense, but the carelessness
and haste in handling toxic waste created a nightmare of
pollution for subsequent generations. Reed is struggling with the
weight of his legacy.

Q: What inspired you to use a scientific motif in the novel?

BAM: It was inevitable, given the nature of Reed’s work. Working
in the atomic industry, Reed is involved in the most deadly scientific
developments in history. He has to come to terms with it and its history.
He inherits a pride in working to defend the country by helping
to build atomic bombs. Now, with proliferation, radioactive
contamination, and the dirty secret we are afraid to talk about—
nuclear terror—Reed has to consider what his job means. Moreover,
he works for a corporation making fuel for power plants now,
a peaceful if debatable process, but he has to go to the nucleus, so
to speak, of the question: who were the scientists who thought of
atomic energy? What were they thinking?

Q: How did you research the scientific aspects of the novel? Did
you have to brush up on your string theory a bit?

BAM: My expertise doesn’t go beyond the popular books. I think
I’m probably not even up to Reed’s level, but I can grasp enough of
quantum mechanics to feel the wonder of it. Physicists must feel
they are in the most exciting field in the world. Their minds must be
afire. What was especially fascinating to me is the way the cosmos—
the infinitely vast—is perhaps mirrored by the infinitely small, the
subatomic. This is Julia and Reed, looking in different directions
but then trying to tie things together with strings, just as scientists
are trying to find the Theory of Everything—and it might be
strings.

Q: What do you feel is the major theme of the book?

BAM: It’s all about dancing, I think. A romance. Spinning, whirling,
dancing are central images: the spinning of the liquid uranium
compound through the gaseous-diffusion process; the whirling of
flocks of birds, centrifuges, minds and moods; the dancing of Reed’s
parents to the Artie Shaw big-band song “Dancing in the Dark.”
And what music are Julia and Reed listening to as they dance? Why,
the cosmic hum, no doubt—the vibrating strings at the bottom of
it all. I think of the title, An Atomic Romance, as a celebration of the life
force in the face of indeterminacy and chaos. That’s dancing in the
dark. It’s one of the most exciting phrases I know.
Reed’s favorite poem is the familiar Coleridge poem “Kubla
Khan.” I could hear words from that poem—“ceaseless turmoil
seething,” “dancing rocks,” mighty fountain,” and “tumult”—echoing
in the atomic fuel processing system, the Cascade. It was exhilarating
to me to think of that central tension between the destructive
power of the tyrant and the creative power of the artist. It seems so
prophetic and apt. Maybe it’s about dancing in the dark.

Praise

Praise

Praise for Bobbie Ann Mason

In Country

“A novel that, like a flashbulb, burns an afterimage in our minds.”
–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“A brilliant and moving book . . . a moral tale that entwines public history with private anguish.”
–Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times Book Review

Shiloh and Other Stories

“Bobbie Ann Mason is one of those rare writers who, by concentrating their attention on a few square miles of native turf, are able to open up new and surprisingly wide worlds for the delighted reader.”
–The New York Review of Books

“Mason is a full-fledged master of the short story. . . . Her first collection is a treasure.”
–Anne Tyler


From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Why are Julia and Reed attracted to each other? What accounts
for their “romance”? Do you sympathize with Julia or Reed in the
breakup? Do you think Reed is being reasonable?

2. Consider the role of science in the novel and in the romance.
Why are Reed and Julia so interested in such uncommon topics as
quarks and the genome project and black holes? What questions ultimately
lie beneath Reed and Julia’s flirtation with quantum theory
and string theory?

3. Why does Reed keep working at such a dangerous job? Can you
explain his loyalty? How does his attitude toward his work evolve?
How serious are the dangers of radioactive contamination? How
does he deal—or not deal—with his potentially lethal exposures to
plutonium? How serious is the problem of nuclear waste for the
world?

4. Reed dreams about a woman killing herself in the wildlife refuge,
a “private screening of a horror film” (10) in his mind. How do you
interpret the meaning of this dream, and why is Reed haunted by it?
How does Reed’s dream connect to all the other dreaming in the
novel? Consider also the epigraph, and Reed’s favorite poem,
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” a poem that arose from a
dream. Why do you think there are so many dreams in this novel?

5. The novel begins as if Reed is watching a movie when he rides
into the wildlife refuge. How does this point of view—and the passive
way we watch movies—arise from Reed’s character and situation?
Can you find other references in the novel to the ways in
which movies influence our way of seeing?

6. There are numerous insects in this book, including the oversized
praying mantis. Why are these insects flying around in this story?
Look for other clusters of images, such as birds, clouds, colors, and
discuss why they might be significant.

7. How does Reed feel about his mother? What is her role in our
understanding of the atomic legacy passed down to Reed? Why
does she like to pretend?

8. Reed has a special fascination with images from the Hubble telescope.
Trace the sequence of Reed’s sessions at the computer with
his astronomical pictures. Why does he move from the stars to the
planets? What are the transuranics?

9. Why does Reed think his buddy Burl is wise or even “holy”?
What does Burl mean by serving as Reed’s “Prayer Warrior”?

10. Julia is a person who’s out for a second chance, a mother who
starts a career after her daughters are grown. How realistic are her
ambitions? Does Julia know herself? Can Reed share and support
her ambitions?

11. What is the role of the mysterious Celtic Warrior Reed encounters
in the wildlife refuge?

12. After Julia leaves for Chicago, Reed finds himself in a series of
situations that carry him along until he can make a decision. What
do these scenes—the ride with Burl into the country, the farewell
trip to the wildlife refuge, the meeting with his Internet pen pal, and
the church pageant with Burl—contribute to Reed’s state of mind
and the progress of his romance with Julia?

13. Does the novel have a happy ending?


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