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.