Sunday, January 06, 2008

Bones, and More Bones

Three Books About Los Alamos

A couple of years ago I spent an idyllic week in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at a writer's workshop. It was my first visit to that part of the West, and like many visitors I was taken by the quality and variety of the land and people. I'm used to Florida landscapes, which are wet and flat with a big sky. By contrast, the high desert was dry and mountainous with big land. Everywhere you looked the ground was sloping up to greater heights, making it possible to see clearly for sixty miles or more. Once, at dusk, a local resident pointed out the lights of three towns, each farther than the last and farther up the slant, one hovering above the other.

Of all the contrasts in the region, one of the oddest is the lurking presence of Los Alamos, birthplace of the Bomb, seeming so out of place amid the Indian pueblos, Mexican ranchos, and New Age spiritualists. I avoided it while I was there, having been told there was nothing to see anyway. But it must have stayed in my mind, because after I got back I found myself drawn to two novels set there, both of which perfectly captured the character of the region while dealing with fictional incidents that orbited around the Manhattan Project like moths drawing ever closer to a flame.

The first was called, simply and aptly enough, Los Alamos, by Joseph Kanon (Broadway Books, 1997). I'd never heard of the author, but the title jumped out at me from a used book sale. Turns out Kanon was a publishing executive and this was his first novel. It's basically a detective story. One of the project employees has been found murdered in Santa Fe, and a government investigator (our hero) is brought in to find out if it was only a crime, or something more sinister--i.e., espionage.

Which do you think it will be? Of course! But first, the Chandleresque hero, who was a newspaper reporter before he was drafted, has to do a lot of sleuthing, and a lot of getting to know the inhabitants of the project site, including Oppenheimer, the master of it all. Almost immediately he meets a woman (did you think he wouldn't?) who may or may not (what do you think?) have anything to do with the murder and possible espionage.

I'm making light of this, because there are certainly the predictable elements we expect--nay, demand--of our adventure novels. But it was much better than that. My comparison with Raymond Chandler was not facetious. The quality of the writing and the flawless evocation of the wartime milieu of the 1940's certainly called Phillip Marlowe to mind, as did the leisurely pursuit of the woman from flirtation to seduction to (naturally) love, and along the way, suspicion. And always, the backdrop of the land, the dry and diverse landscape, the odd people dotted about like seashells scattered on a beach, kept it real and intriguing, with the authentic texture of reality as a foundation.

I expected Robert Owen Butler to deal with this unique time and place in a completely different and perhaps more "literary" way, considering his track record, yet I found his Countrymen of Bones (Owl Books, 1994) to be strikingly similar to Los Alamos, and an interesting companion volume.

In this novel, a paleontologist has the misfortune to have chosen a site for his dig that is uncomfortably close to where the big bang is going to happen. He, too, has a visit from Oppenheimer, whose way of getting rid of him is to assign an assistant to speed up his work. As fate would have it, the woman he sends on this mission has another admirer, one of the scientists working on the project, whose infatuation soon takes on the pathological obsessive quality of some denizen of the novels of Jim Thompson. Indeed, you might have to consult Thompson's work to find a more suffocating immersion into a demented criminal mind.

As the inevitable triangle forms between the two men and the woman, an ancient burial site is slowly excavated, the bomb project with its looming deadline draws ever closer to completion, and the threat of violence builds to an almost unbearable level before it finally breaks, like a long overdue thunderstorm onto a parched desert.

So in the end we have two adventure tales, and oddly enough it is Butler's that has more to do with violent intentions and the motivations for them. Here again we are constantly reminded of where we are, as cars inch across the long dry land leaving clouds of dust in their wake, and the baked ground yields up its bones.

Inevitably, both stories have the same explosion coming before the end, as we know it must. The light of the new age has to burst in the night, and our protagonists must all bear witness to it from the vantage of their various points of view. I will leave you to wonder in which tale the bomb test claims a victim in a bizarre twist.

And then there is Oppenheimer, the man whose Faustian bargain with the government and the military has made him the Prime Mover of both stories. For more on him, I recommend the definitive biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf, 2005) by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. This book contains, so far as a book can, an entire life. But it, too, when the time comes, must in its way evoke that same landscape, the deserts and mountain trails, with Oppy making his way across it on horseback, the future of the world on his shoulders, and its dust in his mouth.

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