Atomic Southwest

The fall 2008 issue of Southwestern American Literature has a special section on the “Atomic Southwest.” I haven’t yet received my copy, either because it isn’t in the mail yet or because my subscription has unintentionally relapsed, but the topic persuaded me to look through my notes on 2008 Western stories to see what creative writers had to say about it. I found two pieces that explore the “post-Western” landscape of nuclear testing: Tracy Daugherty’s “Purgatory, Nevada” (Southwest Review, Volume 93, No. 3, 2008) and Scott Snyder’s “The Thirteenth Egg” (Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 84, No. 2, spring 2008).

Daugherty has written prodigiously about the West; much of his work is set in Texas and Oklahoma. His novels include Desire Provoked (1986), What Falls Away (1996), The Boy Orator (1999), and Axeman’s Jazz (2003). He has also written three collections of stories, The Woman in the Oil Field (1996), It Takes a Worried Man (2002), Late in the Standoff (2005), a collection of essays, Five Shades of Shadow (2003), and today his biography on Donald Barthelme, Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme (2009), is being published by St. Martin’s Press. I wonder if this latter work has influenced Daugherty, because his recent stories are touched with a light degree of experimentation. “Closed Mondays” (Boulevard, Vol. 22, No. 1, fall 2007), creates a kind of postmodern Texas, going so far to even mention Baudrillard within the narrative. “The Inhalatorium” (Texas Review, Vol. 28, Nos. 3 & 4, fall/winter 2007), which for the sake of full disclosure, I should note will appear in the upcoming Best of the West 2009 anthology, is a story about Robert, a young man whose father has just passed away. His dad had loved west Texas, and when he was still alive, he had once mentioned to Robert that this land had been buried underwater. Part of the ending involves Robert eventually seeing the fish that his dad had described, and the climax is powerful and strange because of the odd combination of a gritty depiction of the landscape coupled with magical realist elements that, one realizes at the end, have been seamlessly woven throughout the entire narrative. In “Purgatory, Nevada,” Daugherty reexamines the issue of nuclear testing (What Falls Away treated this issue as well) and tells the story of Stephen, an architect hired by the feds in the 1940s to build a town in Nevada that will subsequently be destroyed by a nuclear bomb so that U.S. scientists can test the resulting effects. Though the ending is a touch obvious, and though the effects of this project on Stephen’s character feel incomplete, it is still a promising story for anyone interested in the “Atomic Southwest.”

Scott Snyder’s “The Thirteenth Egg” appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review’s special issue of Superhero Stories. Set in Boilerville, a fictional desert town in California, it investigates the problems that Everett, a young World War II veteran, has reintegrating into American society. We come to learn that he was exposed to radiation during his Pacific tour. Once again, the ending eschews the standard realist plotline, instead depicting an almost comic book character transformation where Everett becomes a kind of nuclear bomb, melting his enemies, girlfriend, parents, and even his entire town. The ending is brilliant, in part because it tacitly links the nuclear test sites of the Southwest with those of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, thereby positing a kind of atomic trans-Pacific wasteland.

The stories by Snyder and Daugherty suggest that realist narrative approaches might not be an adequate method for depicting our post-nuclear age. This is, obviously, an extremely tentative assertion, and I will be interested to discover if something like it is fleshed out in more detail by one or more of the contributors to Southwestern American Literature’s “Atomic Southwest” issue.

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2 Responses to “Atomic Southwest”

  1. saraspurgeon Says:

    I just got my Southwestern American Lit special issue on the Atomic Southwest. For those of you who haven’t picked it up, there are fabulous articles on the works of Simon Ortiz, Ed Abbey, three Nevada poets (Adrian Louis, Gary Short, and Shaun Griffin), Terry Tempest Williams, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s “black place” landscape paintings. And in a bit of blatant self-promotion, I’ll also put in a word for checking out an author not typically associated with Southwestern or Atomic lit–Martin Cruz Smith. (Why yes, I did write an essays for the SAL issue on Smith!) Seriously though, he’s an interesting case, most well known for Gorky Park and the Arkady Renko series of international spy novels, but with several “southwestern-ish” and/or Native American novels, as well, though they haven’t sold nearly as many copies. There’s been a bit of debate in wicazo sa as to whether he’s Indian enough. (Father was Anglo, mother was half Pueblo, half Yaqui, but he never lived on a reservation and doesn’t always get his ethnographic details correct.) I’d love to know if anyone has taught him as a Native American writer or as an Atomic author (two of his novels, The Indians Won and Stallion Gate, are interested in nuclear weapons).

  2. audreygoodman Says:

    D. Seth Horton notes above that contemporary writers mix magical and realistic modes to imagine a new kind of post-nuclear landscape. As a contributor to SAL’s “Atomic Southwest” issue, I’ve also been thinking about how a wide range of writers and photographers approach this problem. After decades of official denial and suppression, the facts about nuclear testing and contamination are becoming known. Just take a look at Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams, Carole Gallagher’s America Ground Zero, Valerie Kuletz’s The Tainted Desert, and Linda Helstern’s introduction to the special issue to get a sense of the scale of the damage and its disproportionate effect on native communities and lands. The facts are numbing, and will outlive us. My first response to these texts was horror and a feeling of powerlessness. Many images of radiation victims and nuclear test sites echo and intensify these feelings (I’m thinking of Peter Goin’s work in Nuclear Landscapes, for instance — a few examples are posted on his web site, http://www.petergoin.com). One looks, looks away, and looks again – much like the early spectators of atomic testing in the Nevada desert, but with a graver understanding. Such contemplation seems to make traditional conceptions of beauty in the desert wilderness meaningless. One could propose that after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the poetry of desert places can no longer be written.
    Yet, in recent decades writers in the American West, like European poets after the Holocaust, have continued to try to make sense of the horror and destruction that atomic spaces create. The essays in the SAL issue take up prominent examples of such literary resolve to “Fight Back,” to borrow the title of Simon Ortiz’s collection of poems and stories. As Sara Spurgeon just explained, the contributors discuss a diverse group of writers; my own essay discusses how confrontations with forces of destruction or the unknown constitute rituals that lead artists and writers from Georgia O’Keeffe to Ellen Meloy towards new understandings of the post-nuclear desert.
    I’m struck by how all of these writers and critics use the subject of the Atomic West to mobilize environmental awareness and speak out against colonialism and imperialism. Sara’s essay really shows how environmental and post-colonial discourses are intertwined, and other essays take up the way writers not only expose the facts but also reconfigure the trope of discovery, negotiate opposing categories of experience, and cultivate the beauty of deep knowledge of the West’s human and natural histories. Meloy may be most explicit in her linking of violence and beauty, but Ortiz, too, cultivates the beauty inherent in re-imagining a balanced and integrated world. I’d like to hear about other poets or novelists who take this approach as well.
    What many writers discover, of course, is not a new world but a deeply compromised one, and because we all must still live in it (whether it is in our backyard literally or only figuratively), the example of how do to so with awareness and dignity is one that I think many of us would like to follow.


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