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'Atomic' is weighty but flawed

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Years ago, a story circulated in rural areas about a farmer who felt so comfortable around pesticides that he absent-mindedly stuck his hand in a bucket of chemicals, injuring his hand. Those who told the story said they saw how it could happen. "You just get so used to working with 'em," one said. "You forget how dangerous they are."

It's a complicated notion of the easy wedding of hazard and complacency, and the shocking surprise of consequence. Award-winning author Bobbie Ann Mason does an exceptionally fine job of portraying that complexity in her novel An Atomic Romance.

In her first novel in more than a decade, Mason tackles the issues of nuclear production and toxic waste through the lives of a few characters in a small Kentucky town.

Kentucky is familiar territory for Mason, a native. Her popular novels In Country and Feather Crowns were set in small Kentucky towns. And she is best known for perceptive short stories about working-class life in the New South that appeared in The New Yorker and At- lantic Monthly and for her collection Shiloh and Other Stories, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award.

Central to Mason's newest novel is Reed Futrell. Divorced and estranged from his adult children, he's a motorcycle-riding Kentucky son who places mating ads in the personal column while pining for his love, a biologist named Julia.

He reads Stephen Hawking but lives in denial about his own tiny, toxic universe. Futrell, who is a skilled repairman at the uranium-enrichment plant where his father died in a grotesque accident, believes he's part of a new, knowledgeable generation of workers who keep the plant and the environment safe.

News of plutonium contamination at the plant forces Futrell to face his own ignorance: "In an oblique way, he had been informed long ago that plutonium was present, and he had chosen not to ask questions. His own life was a reflection of his father's fate. He felt closer to his father, seeing the parallel. They were both willing participants."

Mason traces the infiltration of toxic waste through the unthinking behavior of innocent workers and the compromised behavior of profit-makers into our everyday lives.

But the novel is flawed. The issues are complex, and, unfortunately, Mason is preachy. Her characters and linear plot are unable to sustain the burden of providing scientific background while remaining believable. Often the characters sound either condescending or like narrators from a badly produced science show for kids.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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