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"An Atomic Romance" by Bobbie Ann Mason; Random House ($24.95)
Bobbie Ann Mason knows our country's great middle - the middle- and working-class folks who don't listen to NPR and who do work in nuclear plants because (1) it pays well and (2) it's the patriotic thing to do. In a body of work that includes short stories ("Shiloh and Other Stories"), novels ("In Country") and memoirs ("Clear Springs"), the Kentucky author has brought such people to life with sympathy and humor, with an eye for the bizarre and even the cosmic.
In "An Atomic Romance," her first novel in a decade, Mason has created her most appealing character yet: Reed Futrell, a randy, wry middle-age nuclear mechanic devoted to his dog, his mother and his girlfriend. With a couple of marriages behind him and his kids grown, Reed, who wanted to be an astronomer but got sidetracked by marriage and a mortgage, retains his sense of wonder - at the galaxies he cruises on the Internet, at his girlfriend's supple body, at the ominous power he waltzes with every day at the nuclear plant.
"An Atomic Romance" opens with a typical Masonic sentence, both simple and packed with portent: "Reed Futrell still went camping in the Fort Wolf Wildlife Refuge, but he no longer brought along his dog."
Reed's plant, which abuts the refuge, is based on a real-life installation in Paducah, Ky., where decades of Cold War weapons production have left prodigious amounts of both nuclear and hazardous waste. In Mason's novel, Reed is well aware of the plant's legacy - his father died in a horrific chemical accident there.
Reed approaches his work, which involves squeezing into the plant's inner chambers for delicate repair jobs, with both pride and gallows humor. He adopts the desiccated body of a bird trapped in the plant as a mascot: "Eisenhower stood on Reed's toolbox, his feet taped down. He was upright and realistic, with a mortician's grin. For verisimilitude, Reed had added a few white spots of caulking beneath the bird's tail. Everybody on the floor knew Eisenhower."
As "An Atomic Romance" progresses, Reed's native good humor is tested. The plot takes several turns: Reed's mother has a stroke; his girlfriend disappears, then reappears. Ominous information about old leaks and accidents at the plant surfaces, denting the protective shells of even the most macho workers.
Reed takes a fatalistic comfort in the cosmology of the stars and his concurrently tiny place in the universe, as he confronts the fact that the work he loves may have poisoned him:
"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." Not an inconsiderable list, when you think about it.
Not long ago I had a conversation on this topic: What is the point of reading novels? There's so much going on in the real world - why waste time on a made-up story? But "An Atomic Romance" set me straight.
Mason has the uncanny ability, possessed by a few virtuoso novelists, to create the layers and textures of her characters' world-shadowed by mechanical power and nuclear threat, populated by characters like Reed's best friend Burl, an apparent redneck who defies the stereotype: "Burl seemed to know that the world's complications were far greater than his understanding, and he had his life worked out in some obscure, irrational linkages of myths, dreams, adages, angels, prayer rituals, rosary beads, Guatemalan worry dolls, hexes - a moral juggling act balanced against the indifference of everyday facts ... Burl could interweave psychics and physics and still sleep soundly."
We need to be reminded that people are so dauntingly and delightfully complex. Bobbie Ann Mason creates such characters, vivifies them and allows us a peek into their hearts. This is the novelist's great gift.
(c) 2005, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.