A scintillating debut novel about a young couple whose marriage is tested when they move to an army base rife with love triangles, life-or-death conflicts, and a dramatic cover-up
In 1959, Nat Collier moves with her husband, Paul, and their two young daughters to Idaho Falls, a remote military town. An Army Specialist, Paul is stationed there to help oversee one of the country’s first nuclear reactors—an assignment that seems full of opportunity.
Then, on his rounds, Paul discovers that the reactor is compromised, placing his family and the entire community in danger. Worse, his superiors set out to cover up the problem rather than fix it. Paul can’t bring himself to tell Nat the truth, but his lies only widen a growing gulf between them.
Lonely and restless, Nat is having trouble adjusting to their new life. She struggles to fit into her role as a housewife and longs for a real friend. When she meets a rancher, Esrom, she finds herself drawn to him, comforted by his kindness and company. But as rumors spread, the secrets between Nat and Paul build and threaten to reach a breaking point.
Based on a true story of the only fatal nuclear accident to occur in America, The Longest Night is a deeply moving novel that explores the intricate makeup of a marriage, the shifting nature of trust, and the ways we try to protect the ones we love.
Praise for The Longest Night
“[A] stunning debut.”—Entertainment Weekly
“[A] smart and detailed portrait of a dissolving postwar marriage . . . will remind many readers of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“[Andria] Williams’s quietly confident style is without swagger or gimmick. . . . What emerges most powerfully from The Longest Night is a kind of quiet wonder at the exquisite intricacy, but astonishing durability, of familial love.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
“Think Army Wives meets Serial meets your perfect long weekend read. About an army base with a lot of love triangles, and a cover-up.”—theSkimm
“The tension builds heavily with each page.”—InStyle
“Scintillating . . . A smoldering, altogether impressive debut that probes the social and emotional strains on military families in a fresh and insightful way.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“[A] luminous debut . . . Williams expertly builds tension between Paul and Nat as the story progresses towards the inevitable nuclear tragedy in this utterly absorbing and richly rewarding novel.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Andria Williams’s debut is an intimately detailed portrait of love, trust, and guilt in a town—and an era—clouded with secrets.”—Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You
“A smart and compassionate novel that offers as many fresh insights into marriage and intimacy as it does about American nuclear history. Andria Williams is a terrific writer—clear-eyed and empathetic—and this is a fantastic debut.”—Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans
“It’s hard to believe The Longest Night is Andria Williams’s debut novel. Her command of language, character and plot—the three essential ingredients for a riveting read—is extraordinary.”—David Abrams, author of Fobbit
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
Andria Williams received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota. She and her husband, an active-duty naval officer, are currently stationed in Colorado with their three young children. This is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
January 3, 1961
Paul was so lost in thought that night, driving, that it took him a moment to notice the ambulance heading toward him on the horizon. It arced up over the road, a starry flare against the black sky until it passed him, bright and soundless. A minute later, two fire trucks and the chief’s station wagon followed, traveling in a tight pack, their lights whirling yellow and white and red.
Paul’s heart tightened into a fist. He tried to tell himself that the trucks could mean nothing or anything, that they could be headed to any of the reactors at the testing station, but that was bullshit and he knew it. It was bullshit just like the supervisors had been feeding them for a year: that all the CR-1’s glitches were minor, that when the reactor shut down you just started it up again, when it got too hot you just did what you had to do to cool it off: Use your heads, boys, and make the damn thing work. Keep it alive until that new reactor core arrives in spring. Then this thing’ll be running so smooth, you’ll be sorry you ever complained.
So they’d waited through fall and early winter, holding out for spring. But here it was, the coldest night in an Idaho January, seventeen below zero, and every vehicle in the fire department fleet had just blown past, headed due east for the CR-1.
Paul pulled onto the shoulder and turned his car to follow them, tires grinding on the gravel. He didn’t know what he’d find when he got there. Please let them be lucky, please let it just be a false alarm so they could all endure a nice dressingdown from the fire chief, who’d had it up to here with the reactor’s problems. But it was the night of the restart, the riskiest operation they performed, when they took the reactor from stonecold nothing to full power. He sent a silent thought to the boys on shift. He thought of his wife, Nat, too, the way he’d left her at home, the awful things he’d said. If he didn’t get a chance to apologize, this would be how she’d remember him, hard and cruel, driving off with a backseat full of clothing. His car bumped onto the dirt road toward the reactor and his thoughts became scrambled by fear. Here were the swirling lights of all the vehicles, the steam pumping in a white cloud into the air, Nat watching him drive away, his daughters in their beds, the fire chief waving his arms at Paul’s car and calling something—-and he felt the sinking sensation that he was too late for all of it, for Nat, for the boys, for his daughters, for everyone, and it was just as he had always feared: When the time came it would happen before he knew it, it would happen without him there; despite everything he had always done to be ready, he would be too late.
Coupe de Ville
Nat was the first one out of the car. She stepped into the dirt parking lot, her lowheeled shoes printing chevrons into the reddish dust. Ahead of them the lake shimmered blue, dancing with sun. They were somewhere in northern Utah, one day out from their final destination in Idaho Falls, and not a moment too soon.
For the past two and a half weeks they’d been driving crosscountry: Virginia to Idaho in the ’55 DeSoto Fireflite her husband, Paul, had bought used a couple of years before. Paul was starting his next army tour in Idaho Falls as an operator for a small nuclear reactor. You moved for Uncle Sam, he told Nat, but you still found your own transportation. So, with their two young daughters packed into the backseat they headed west, sleeping in hotels and farmhouses and even, on two regrettable nights, in the car. Nat was beginning to feel that they might be vagabonds forever, nomads wandering the rough western states, eating crackers by the side of the road in a hot wind, loitering at the edge of decent farmers’ land, scrambling after barn kittens, urinating in gas stations.
Paul opened his driver’s side door and stepped out. He bent to help Liddie squeeze past the seat, a damp spot showing at the small of his back. Liddie was one and a half, and she hit the ground running, hustling toward the beach with a toddler’s steady, impressive lack of hesitation or common sense, belly leading the way in pink cotton overalls. Samantha, who was three, scampered out through the passenger seat, her rumpled paleblue dress flapping around her legs. Nat followed them, shading her eyes to the sparkle of the water and the glow of pentup energy that seemed to rise from their daughters’ small bodies like incandescence.
The round crystalline lake before them was held between mountains as if cupped in a palm. The spring air smelled sweet, and Nat was filled with a sudden stirring of hope.
She smiled up at Paul. “We just might make it,” she said.
Paul’s brown eyes were weary, a little bloodshot. He scratched his head, two brisk strokes over his close army haircut. “Let’s hope so,” he said. Then he smiled back. “How you holding up?”
“Good,” she said. They trailed after the girls, Paul rolling up his shirtsleeves, Nat’s shoes dangling from her fingers.
There was a faint, distant splash up the curve, followed by muted applause and whistles, and Nat turned her head. She spied a rock outcropping that jutted into the water and was surprised to see the silhouettes of people atop it. A moment later one of them sprang off the end of the rock, sailed downward in a gentle parabola, and entered the water with only the slightest sound.
“Rock divers,” Nat said as the head bobbed up. She checked the girls’ location—-still a good distance from the water’s edge, their twinlike heads of chocolatebrown hair mingling as they bent to stack rocks—-and turned back to the jumpers. The dazzling water, the leap and burst were so familiar that her heart hurt. She had grown up in San Diego; swimming and diving were the things she’d loved. Some of her strongest memories were of leaping off the Sunset Cliffs in Point Loma, watching the white froth swirl before plunging in.
Paul was watching her from the corner of his eye.
“I’m going in,” she said.
“Going in where?” he asked, the suspicion in his voice showing he knew her well enough.
“Up there. I want to jump in.”
His forehead crimped with uneasiness, and a pulse of guilt ran through her. “That’s crazy,” he said. “You’ll be wet on the drive.”
“With this air? I’ll dry in half a minute. Here, hold my shoes.” Before he could argue she handed them to him and jogged through the sinking, rocky sand, pebbles coating her calves and flinging up around her knees.
“You don’t know those people,” Paul called.
She turned and waved. “It’s okay! Be back in a second.”
The girls hopped and cheered beside their father as she poked her way up the rock. Even from a distance she could see Paul’s disapproval, the tenseness of his shoulders and straight line of his mouth. For that one moment she didn’t care.
When she reached the top she saw the jumpers, two men and two women. They lounged on the side of the rock now, sun-warmed and serene. They seemed about Nat’s age, twentyfour, and she wondered at their lives, at what had brought them to this rock midday, free from the responsibilities that regulated her own hours: children and meals and cleaning and ironing. She had been like them once, only a few years ago, and for a moment she paused as if watching grainy silent footage of herself.
“Hi,” one of the men called, and Nat came to her senses and said hello. Now that she was this close to them she felt a little selfconscious, and she said, “The water just looks so alluring.” As soon as she said “alluring” she regretted its dark, slightly affected tone and wished she had used a more regular word instead.
“It’s wonderful,” said a woman, plucking at the tightfitting skirt of her red swimsuit. She looked up at Nat, cocking an eyebrow. “But you’re going in like that?”
“I guess so,” Nat said, smiling. She stepped to the edge and curled her toes. Her dress hung around her knees. This was no wild ocean but a placid, glasssmooth lake, and the water below her was clear and blue. She pointed her arms, felt the tendons behind her knees hollow and tense, her back stretch long to the tips of her fingers, and dived.
She fell through three long heartthroat seconds—one-a-thousand, two-a-thousand, three-a-thousand—before piercing the water. She could feel that it wasn’t a perfect entry, feet tipped a little too far back over her head, but she didn’t care. The sheer, pure cold sucked the air from her body and she surfaced, stifling a scream. Then she burst into laughter, paddling back toward her family. She hadn’t done something like that in years. How could anyone not love this sensation? It slapped you in the face and shouted You’re alive!
“Nice!” a man called above her.
Her toes reached sand and she waded toward shore. As she caught sight of Paul and the girls waiting for her, however, the excitement began to dwindle. She suddenly felt silly. Her dress suctioned squishily around her; she was forced to take small, awkward steps. By the time she got back to them Paul was fuming, her shoes clenched in his hands.
“Why did you do that?” he cried.
She squeezed out her hair, avoiding his eyes. “For fun,” she said, her voice small.
Paul shook his head. “You didn’t know what was under the water there. What if you dove down and hit something and never came up, right here in front of your little girls?”
“I knew it would be fine,” she said. And while she’d never admit it to Paul, the relief of not striking anything—-that moment of plunging into the water and feeling herself go down, down, unimpeded, the cold exploding past her face and neck and body until her own air pulled her up again—-was part of the fun. It had to be a little scary to count for anything.
She remembered that swimming was a different thing for him than it was for her; he’d grown up poor and never learned to swim until he got to boot camp, practicing every night, he’d said, in a pond near Fort Dix. This was one of the few concrete details she had of his youth, and it was a curious, poignant image: thin teenage Paul easing himself into the shallow dark, thrashing quietly along the shoreline until he could glide two strokes alone, three, four. Even then he passed the entrance test by the skin of his teeth, just enough to fill a pair of boots destined for Korea. It was no wonder, really, that the mild risks Nat liked to take scared him: the long swims to clear her head, cliff jumping, diving. But he acted as if she were doing it just to spite him, when in fact it had nothing to do with him at all. Which maybe, from his perspective, was even worse.
What if you never came up? She always came up.
He scooped their daughters into each arm and strode ahead, and she followed, feeling contrite, wishing she hadn’t been so defiant and so stupid. And yet she knew it wasn’t just worry on his part: Having an audience had made it worse. He’d had to sit by and watch strangers cheer her on for something he’d not wanted her to do, as if their approval was more important than his concern.
When she got back to the car he didn’t speak to her. Her dry shoes waited on her seat, side by side.
A day later, after two and a half weeks on the road, Paul and Nat and their daughters made it to Idaho Falls, where they’d been assigned to a small yellow house in a neighborhood near downtown. There was no base housing, so military personnel lived scattered among civilians. Paul began reactor training the day after they arrived, while Nat stayed behind in the empty house with the girls bouncing off the walls. He felt bad about leaving her with so much work, though slightly relieved to get out of the house, even if starting the new job made him nervous.
It took another week for their boxes to arrive, all their belongings jumbled into weird combinations. Each day when Paul got home from work, it seemed that another item or two had been put in its proper place—-towels appearing in a cabinet that had, when he’d left that morning, been bare, the blender suddenly standing on the countertop—-but this was moving at a slower pace than he’d expected. He tried to be patient. He knew Nat was busy with the girls.
He had three weeks of inclass training and observation, then his first week of work on the reactor itself. The CR1 was as small and simple as everyone said, a reactor that could be run by just three enlisted men. They worked in shifts, and Paul’s first shift had been the overnight with two other guys: a lead man, Franks, and a young enlisted named Webb, who was as new as Paul was. They sweated on a hot reactor floor that churned and groaned with steam, then took breaks outside in a world that felt quieter than the dawn of time. The desert at night looked endless in every direction, pitchblack at ground level with stars overhead, suspended in swaths of nebulous cream.
Now, having finished his training and his first week on the reactor, Paul stepped out into the cool morning air, breathing in the tang of sagebrush and the steamy bitterness of coffee in its paper cup. The modest promise of the weekend sat before him, two days without a lick of work. He liked thinking about it even as the sweat on his forehead began to dry from the last shift. He wedged an unlit cigarette between his lips, patted his pocket for his Zippo. Any minute now the blue government bus would pick him up for the fiftymile ride back into town, but he couldn’t yet see it on the horizon. Behind him, the CR1 pumped clouds into the quiet sky, living its vigorous, inanimate life; ahead of him, stretched somewhere across nine hundred square miles of desert, were the thirty or so other reactors at the testing station. He saw a glint of light off a couple of them, but had never visited and did not know their crewmen. All of them were bigger than his own reactor, busier, more prestigious.
The CR-1 was the prototype for compact, portable units the army was building in the Arctic Circle, run by just two or three men. Its appearance was underwhelming: It looked like a silo. It was three stories tall, with smooth, windowless, shiny steel walls, and if it hadn’t been built on testing station land, no one would have thought a nuclear reactor was housed inside. This was, from a strategic standpoint, a plus: The reactors modeled on its design would be small, cheap, easytobuild units that could be assembled onthespot across the Arctic, where American soldiers would wait, able to hit pay dirt pretty much anywhere in Russia if the Soviets did anything stupid.
“Does it make you feel bad?” Nat had asked on the drive to Idaho, in a moment of reflection. “All those missiles pointed at the Russians, and none of them has ever done anything to us?”
The question had silenced him for a moment. It was just like Nat to think about the other side: sweet, and also impractical. He could still see her concerned brown eyes, the rumple in her brow when she’d asked. Nat, who’d almost never left San Diego, a place so beautiful and floral that it hardly seemed real; Nat, whose skin was permanently divided into tan and white parts from all the teenage hours she’d spent on the beach, who was smart and funny but as apolitical as a wedding or a waterfall: The thought of their American missiles must have saddened her, or she wouldn’t have put the question to Paul. This rankled him a bit because it felt like a judgment, but it also filled him with a contradictory little swish of love for her when the memory came back to him later at work.
He rarely thought about the Soviets. There was plenty of rhetoric going around about them: tough talk, blustery threats. He figured most Russians were probably fine and it was their government that caused problems. Starving its own people, letting the economy go to hell. It wasn’t his job to analyze such things. His job was simply to do his job: to walk onto a reactor floor and keep the machine running, keep the feedwater valves pumping and the rod drive seal from leaking and the pressure from getting too high or too low.
This testing station land, they’d learned in reactor school, had once been populated by Indians, then by the Mormons who built Idaho Falls, and was later used as the Minidoka internment camp for Japanese Americans during the war. After that it spent several years as an artillery proving ground for all branches of the military, with explosives of every kind blasted across the scrub. Sometimes the operators caught Mormon kids sneaking over the chain-link fence on a dare, hunting for the sixinch slugs left from weapons trials.
Paul alternated between the steaming welcome of his coffee and the brisk lung burn of the cigarette, thought of Nat home without him, sleeping on the floor because they still didn’t have a damn bed. The crosscountry move and the start of his new job hadn’t made for an easy time. He felt they’d just performed some marathon stunt, like climbing Mount Everest together, only to roll down the other side and land in a dusty pile of their own belongings. His new career as a nuclear operator, after eight often dull and frustrating years in petroleum supply, was supposed to offer all manner of benefits: more prestige, pay bonuses, endless opportunities. So far most of these had not materialized, and he certainly didn’t feel that he and Nat were growing closer. He had no idea if his great personal gamble would work, and, finally in Idaho with reactor school behind him and his young family in tow, no going back, did the gravity of what he’d risked wash over him.
Dust on the horizon caught Paul’s eye, but it wasn’t the slow plume the government bus always made; it was a lower, fastertraveling cloud, and as it got closer he saw it was pulled by a flashy creamcolored car. The car -was the only eyecatching thing on the whole barren desert. It looked almost like a mirage the way it gleamed, speeding along the flat highway.
Behind Paul the door to the reactor building opened and his shift leader, Specialist Franks, stepped out. He stood beside Paul and lit his own cigarette, watching the approaching car from beneath heavy eyebrows.
“Who’s that?” Paul asked, pointing with his cigarette.
Franks looked surprised. “You haven’t met Master Sergeant Richards? He’s the dayshift supervisor.”
“I’ve only worked the night shift,” Paul said. The car grew louder now as it came closer, its engine a steady, throaty rumble. This was their Master Sergeant, this man in the unexpectedly beautiful car? Paul had been told that Richards, who supervised the day shift, worked next door to them in the Admin building but spent most of his time drinking in his office. Supervisors were notorious for boozing their days away on remote assignments like the CR-1; to be stuck in a leadership position on this tour was considered something of a punishment.
But the car was a showstopper, a pearly Cadillac Coupe de Ville, ’57 or ’58. It pulled up in front of the chain-link gate, front-loaded and pristine as a palomino. Didn’t seem like Richards was feeling too sorry for himself.
Paul said, “I thought we were all supposed to ride the bus.”
“We are,” said Franks. “But that does not deter Sergeant Richards from driving his own car when he damn well pleases. He’s not shy about it, either, as you can see.”
Franks strode over to let the car in the gate. Paul tried not to betray too much curiosity as Richards parked and stepped out, waggling his khaki cap down onto his head. He had assertive blue eyes and early graying hair that gave him an air of authority beyond his rank.
When Richards reached them, Paul and Franks stood a little straighter, echoing one after the other, “Good morning, Master Sergeant,” “Master Sergeant.”
“ ’Morning,” Richards said, looking up at the steam that pumped from the reactor into the chilly morning air. “How was the night, fellows? Will I go in there and find a logbook that agrees with me?”
“Yes, Sergeant. Nothing out of the ordinary,” said Franks.
“Glad to hear it. Where’s the young guy?”
“Webb? Latrine, I guess.”
As if on cue, the door opened and Specialist Webb, the last of their threeman crew, flew out. He was a tall, jointy, younglooking fellow with a missing tooth on one side that hollowed his cheek in. He spotted Richards and pulled up crisply. “Good morning, Master Sergeant.”
“That john on fire, son? You came out of there like a bat out of hell.”
“No, Sergeant. It wasn’t on fire, Sergeant. I thought I’d missed the bus.”
Richards chuckled. “Well, don’t get your knickers in a twist about it.”
“Say, Collier,” Richards said with a smirk, “why don’t you come inside with me? We’ve never had our little welcomeaboard chat.”
Paul hesitated. There was the matter of the bus: He could see it on the horizon now, a blue dot wending its way toward them. It was eight a.m. and another one wouldn’t be by until the end of the next shift, eight hours away. Of course the master sergeant knew this. But it was their first meeting, and Paul didn’t think he had much choice other than to say “Yes, Sergeant” and follow Richards into the administration building.
The Admin building seemed an even lonelier place to work than the reactor itself; it was a long, low wooden portable left over from WWII, with tall, narrow windows. Inside, a hallway divided two rows of thinwalled offices, five on each side. Richards’s rank and name had been typed onto a small manila square and tacked to a door on the right, which he pushed open to reveal a modest desk piled with endless disheveled papers. Behind the desk was a file cabinet and a dusty American flag that sagged slightly along the back wall. Richards stepped behind the desk and sat down on a small, creaky black folding chair. He linked his fingers behind his head and leaned back a little, watching Paul, who settled into an identical chair opposite.
“So, we finally get a chance to talk,” Richards said, as if he’d been pursuing Paul unsuccessfully for days. “What do you think of this place? The CR1, is it like you expected?”
“Just about,” Paul said. “Things are going fine. Thank you for asking.”
“Good. And how’s your family? Your wife like it here?”
“She seems to.”
“Excellent. You’ve got to keep your wife happy, you know.”
Paul nodded uncertainly. On Richards’s desk he spotted a framed photo of an elegant redhaired woman holding a child. With the woman’s curled hair, pearl earrings, and soft, cultivated smile it could have been a picture cut from a magazine, but the toddler on her lap wore the unfocused expression and irregular eyebrows of a normal, nonmoviestar child. “Your family?” Paul asked, pointing.
Richards flashed his self-regarding, deep-dimpled smile. “So I’m told.”
“It’s a nice photo.”
“Thank you.” The sergeant stretched in his chair. “So, do you go home and brag to your wife that you work on the smallest reactor the army’s got?”
“I don’t really mind it,” Paul said, unsure why his wife, whom Richards had never met, kept coming up. The CR-1’s size didn’t bother him. He’d rather work in a quiet building than in one of the big-name operations onsite, with all the lab men and scientists around, asking the operators for coffee and treating them like janitors.
Richards leaned forward. “I wouldn’t mind a touch more prestige around here, I’ll tell you that.” His arm snaked into a desk drawer and he pulled out two tumblers and a bottle of bourbon, which he poured neat, passing one to Paul with a grin that was somehow both friendly and challenging. “What is it you like to do, Collier? Do you ski? The skiing’s amazing around here.”
“I’ve never been skiing,” Paul admitted.
“Never have—” Richards swatted his knee, breathless with disbelief. “Why, that’s something. Well, do you fly-fish?”
“I’ve—I’ve fished. I don’t fly-fish.”
“What are you into? Cars? Sports?”
Paul stared at him, drawing a blank, suddenly horrified—nothing. He was into nothing. What was there to be into? He worked, he went home, he fixed things and sat with his wife while she listened to the radio. He’d never had much time or money to spare. The awareness of this seemed to come crashing down upon himself and Richards at the same time.
“What are you, Collier? Some kind of bumpkin?” Richards laughed, baring his teeth. He held up a hand. “No, no. Don’t worry about it.”
“Never mind. You’re a quiet, studious one, I could tell the moment I saw you.” He glanced away as if he’d already lost interest: Paul’s poverty of leisure was not compelling.
Paul shifted in his seat and looked again at the woman in the photo on Richards’s desk. Her expression seemed almost condescending to him now.
Richards sucked on his drink, bored; then a thought came to him and he leaned forward. “Well, listen,” he said, almost brightening. “We have a certain way of doing things around here—you’ve probably noticed.”
“All right,” Paul said, relieved by the change of topic though he wasn’t quite sure what Richards was talking about.
“Deke Harbaugh—you’ll meet him, he’s our lead man from Combustion Engineering,” Richards said. “He’s a civilian, but he understands where we’re coming from better than the other pricks they’ve got up there. Pardon me.” Richards raised a hand again and grinned. “Anyway, Harbaugh’s on our side when things come up.”
Paul absorbed this, wondering: What comes up?
“What we try to do around here,” Richards said, “is keep things close, keep things army. I like to say that the buck stops here. We’re operators.” He made eye contact to check that Paul was following. “If there’s an . . . irregularity, a concern, you can bring it to me before you even write it in the log. It’s a can-do attitude kind of thing. If we fix it before it hits paper, all the better. Otherwise, we’re always having to go to the Combustion Engineering guys, asking permission for every last thing, like teenage babysitters.”
Paul nodded. This was not how he’d been trained; in reactor school they were taught to document any occurrence, large or small, to the point that it seemed overdone. But Richards was Paul’s new boss, and Paul had found it was best to listen awhile before you talked, so he did.
“Excellent,” said Richards, as if Paul had agreed to something complex. “Just a can-do culture around here. I could tell you were exactly the right kind of guy for this.”
Paul wanted to ask what exactly the right kind of guy for this meant but decided to take the praise at face value. So he stood; they shook. Paul hoped Richards would decide to head home around midday, as his reputation suggested he liked to do, and offer Paul a ride to compensate for making him miss the bus. Maybe Richards would even use him as an excuse to leave early—I made this poor Joe stay late, so I’d better get him on home now.
But if Richards had such a plan, he didn’t mention it. “Collier, you go on and have a good day now,” he said. “Close that door for me, will you?” He tossed his feet onto the desk, stretched his chair back so that it creaked, and closed his eyes. Paul hesitated, clicked shut the door.
He’d encountered master sergeants like Richards before and knew his type: men who silvered into maturity, enjoying the flirtations of women and the subordination of men, who remained athletic in that lazy way where, despite the small potbelly nudging the bottom of their brassbuttoned shirts, they could still trounce you in horseshoes or twenty-one at a division barbeque and laugh heartily about it. These were not men Paul generally liked.
He wandered into the lounge and settled onto the small, hard couch, pulling his knees up; might as well make himself comfortable. He wondered if it were admirable that he’d refrained from mentioning the missed bus, or if he’d just been a patsy. Probably a little of both.
He must have dozed, because the next thing he knew he heard a soft noise in the parking lot outside: the distinct sound of a classy car clearing its throat.
He got up and went to the window. His eyes widened when he realized it was Richards’s car leaving without him. Before Paul could even get to the door, he heard the propulsion of tires against gravel.
“What the hell,” he cried. He jogged into the parking lot, waving his hands above his head. “Master Sergeant!”
There was no way Richards could hear him; the car was through the gate now, heading for the highway.
Surely Richards would stop. Surely he’d remember that he’d stranded Paul fifty miles from home in the desert, and turn back. Paul called out again, even gave a pathetic little jump, hoping he’d be spotted in the rearview mirror. But the car glided down the road, shiny as a pearl in the afternoon sun. Richards was headed home to relaxation and family and comfy slippers, leaving Paul outside the goddamn reactor in his uniform.
Do not chase your boss’s car down the road. You are not going to act desperate.
He shuffled back toward the building. Was this some kind of power play? Was Richards drunk, did he just not give a shit, what? Nat was going to ask why Paul was eight hours late, but if he told her this sad little tale she’d pepper him with all sorts of further questions. It would be better just to keep it to himself, but the thought made him feel like a lonely fool. He kicked the doorframe and stalked back inside to wait for the bus, to let Richards’s dust settle on the ground and rocks, which, if nothing else, seemed better than standing there and letting it fall on him.
Back in the lounge he paced, agitated, humiliated almost out of proportion. Being made to stay eight extra hours for a tenminute meeting seemed an infuriating absence of consideration, or an act of outright hostility. Richards had shown no respect in assuming Paul would stay, and even less in leaving him there, fifty miles from home with no ride.
He was too steamed up to sit still. Richards’s smug questions dogged him: What are you into? Skiing? Fly-fishing? I knew you were exactly the right kind of guy for this. Whether it was logical or not he felt that Richards had somehow seen right through him, deduced in minutes that he was a man who could be dismissed, no repercussions.
Paul was used to being snubbed; he was from people with no money and learned early on that this made him easy to brush aside. All the tokens and symbols he used to armor himself—his uniform, operator’s badge, wedding ring—meant nothing to Sergeant Richards, who blew them off in an instant and made Paul feel groveling and worthless. He didn’t want to be angry now, didn’t want to knock around hostile, pessimistic thoughts for the next few hours, but he had never found a way to fight that train of thought once he got on it.
He had grown up in a rural Maine cabin as quiet as a deep snow, punctuated by outbursts of inexplicable and embarrassing violence. More than once he could recall standing flat against the log wall, breathing shallowly as if he could avoid being noticed while his father, drunk, swished past in an itchy rage like some creature from the zoo. When his pa did address Paul it was mockingly, making Paul stammer and squirm, squelching his hate. His mother was not much better. She’d taken to drink as far back as Paul could remember, and one of his earliest mem-ories was of sitting by her bed, playing with her limp fingers as she snored.
The lack of control people showed repelled him. They brought their trouble upon themselves, one person after another, and it was impossible to feel sorry for them. He wasn’t surprised when his mother sought relief in bars and men; he wasn’t shocked, either, when she was brought home one cold morning on a wooden sled, her eyes punched in, and left in the shed for the ground to thaw and the serviceberries to bloom.
At sixteen he stole his father’s boots, hitchhiked to Portland, and enlisted in the army. When he first joined up he trusted everyone, all these people he’d dreamed about for years who were not his family, who’d decided to live upstanding and useful lives. These, finally, were his people! But he learned, to his disappointment, that they were often just as flawed as his own family had been; that even with all the military did to raise them up, they settled back into their character defects like a dog curling into a round bed.
That first spring away from home, still in boot camp, he’d received news of another nonsurprise: His father had been discovered by hunters a few miles from home, having fallen through the ice on one of his -weaving walks back from town. Paul was an orphan, and he was relieved.
It turned out that his parents’ deaths neither cured nor worsened things. Paul embarked on a program of self-control and betterment. In his locker he taped a Robert E. Lee quote: “I do not trust a man to control others who cannot control himself.” Amazingly, as the years went by, he won the job, the girl, and an amount of respect that seemed neither stingy nor extravagant: It seemed just right. But like many hardforced things his veneer was delicate, and he found that he became easily panicked. He’d fought so hard for what he had that he could imagine countless ways it might be taken away.
Which brought him back to Sergeant Richards, this day, this room. This disastrous blowing-off, this bitter, stupid stranding. Maybe Richards was just an asshole who would’ve left anyone at the reactor; maybe he had simply stayed in his office, gotten mildly drunk and let Paul slip his mind easily as any other minor chore. But Paul could not stop it from driving him crazy. There was something satisfying about the way an obsession fired up every spot on his brain all at once: pain, pleasure, anger, desire, defiance. Fuck everyone who had treated him like he was nothing; fuck Richards for treating him like nothing now. He would revel in this small torment, his mind churning cycles of concession and resistance, anger and acquiescence until he wore himself out.
He knew better than to fight it. There was only one thing that could soothe him and that would be walking in his front door, calmed by the golden kitchen light like a violent, rogue archangel. Nat would smile at him, knowing exactly who he was, the man he’d made himself to be, good provider and husband, father of the two little girls who would be skipping toward him, kissing him with their little crumb-covered faces: All this goodness he’d made for himself out of nothing, scaring his old self right back from where it came.
Reading Group Guide
Q&A between David Gillham, author of NYT Bestseller City of Women (Penguin), and Andria Williams, author of forthcoming debut novel, The Longest Night (Random House)
David Gillham: I loved this book, Andria. The characters, the setting, the friction and plot are all pitch perfect. But I’m curious, how did you first hear about the explosive events surrounding the military’s SL-1 atomic reactor (styled as CR-1 in the book)?
Andria Williams: Thank you, David! I’d read about it long ago while doing research for another project. Then, a few years ago, I came across a book called Atomic America by a former Navy nuclear officer named Todd Tucker. The book focuses in large part upon the SL-1, a tiny reactor in the Idaho desert that mysteriously exploded on a freezing January night in 1961. The rescue crew who arrived at the reactor, not knowing whether the operators were dead or alive, had to decide whether or not to risk their own lives on the very slim chance that they could save one of these men. Remarkably, all of the first responders did take that chance, putting themselves in grave danger.
After the accident, rumors swirled about the operators who’d been working that night. Whether or not it was useful to the investigation or even ethical, their personal histories became central to the story of what happened at the SL-1.
I started thinking about who these characters might be, what sorts of men would work that job in the late 1950s, who their wives might have been. When your imagination starts running wild like that, you just feel in your bones that you have the making for a good novel.
DG: Can you talk a bit about the rumors still orbiting the SL-1 meltdown and what made you want to dig deeper and ultimately create this terrific story?
AW: The 1950s were a time of boundless nuclear optimism. I can’t think of many times in history when science and government alike have put so much faith in a single technology. So when the SL-1 accident occurred, it was much easier for people to see it as having been a human error rather than a mechanical one. No one wanted to believe that the reactor had just blown up; the operators had to have done something wrong. Taking it even further, many of the investigators claimed that the operator lifting the central control rod must have knowingly yanked it above the four-inch limit, which would have flooded the core with energy and caused the reactor to go supercritical in a fraction of a second, blowing the whole thing up. But why would someone do this?
The investigators dedicated a remarkable amount of time and energy to investigating the young operators’ backgrounds, love lives, social histories. One of the young men was known for having big drag-out fights with his wife in front of their apartment building, where she’d throw all his clothes out the window and the cops would be called and so forth. In fact, his wife had, that very afternoon, stolen his paycheck and filed for divorce. So the story started to be told that he was distraught and, working that night, decided to end it all in a murder-suicide. Even the newspapers reported this story, and it stuck for decades.
Things got even more outlandish, with some rumors claiming that there had been a love triangle between this man and one of the other operators’ wives. Never mind that the wife in question was Mormon and eight months pregnant at the time, and that there is no evidence she and the operator ever even met. The rumors were much more salacious, exciting, and easy to understand, and they stuck – to the point that they are sometimes still used to explain the SL-1 accident.
But after reading about the accident, watching documentaries, looking up oral histories, I found myself agreeing with Todd Tucker’s conclusion that the operators themselves had been blameless in the accident, and that mechanical failure had been brewing for a long time. And this seemed even more poignant to me, even more the story I wanted to tell.
But because there’s no definitive answer to what happened at the SL-1, I decided to tell the story in fiction form, taking composites of various characters described in the reports I’d read, and using this story to give an overview of this segment of our culture at the sometimes surreal-feeling dawn of the atomic age.
DG: In the book, there are several memorable scenes of break-room antics among the soldiers who work at the reactor. One of my favorites is the “Tic Tac Dough” scene in which the men play along with a popular game show. The banter between the soldiers is really wonderful. How did you go about crafting their language and the easy, authentic rapport you portray?
AW: Thank you! I really enjoyed writing scenes between soldiers. I’ve spent a lot of time around military folks by now and have enjoyed the certain shared sense of humor they often have. They spend a lot of hours together, so there’s a lot of teasing, of course; a universal love of the prank, a gallows humor that comes with the job, and a predominantly masculine energy to it all. Putting soldiers in rooms and bars and on the beach together gave me an excuse to work in historical details—music and TV shows of the time—while also just letting them talk to each other, show a little bit of who they were.
DG: There’s another scene in the book that I found very riveting. It centers around the men out for a night on the town outside of Idaho Falls. This is the Idaho Falls 1960 version of a “red light district.” The boys head out to celebrate a birthday and one of them hires a prostitute, a local Native American woman. An incredibly uncomfortable scene follows drunken men climbing behind the wheels of cars, and, most heinously, the cruelty inflected upon the woman. Will you speak a bit about writing this scene and its importance?
AW: This is the flip side to those nice guys joking around in the break room: no group of people can be one hundred percent clever and charming. I needed to show what might happen when the group dynamic changed, when the boss-man was present and encouraging his guys to do some unsavory things.
Military installations often generate a market for alcohol and sex, and Idaho Falls in the late fifties was no exception. Most any report written about the operators working the SL-1 mentions that at least two of them had been at some fairly wild parties, including one where they hired a local prostitute to entertain the men for two bucks apiece. I found this an interesting counterpoint to the code of chivalry the men kept in place toward their wives, who were supposed to be these domestic angels tending the home and hearth and waiting patiently for their soldier boys to return home. Women who were not their wives, who didn’t fit this formula of extreme propriety, were seen as having signed away some of the right to manly protection that the housewives received. If you were nonwhite, or unmarried, or sexually loose – well, you didn’t have to be treated with kid gloves like these upstanding housewives were.
So Paul finds himself in a situation where a woman is being abused, but most all of the guys are going along with it, and there could be repercussions for him if he decides to be the one soft-heart who helps her out. These strict gender expectations cut both ways, and Paul is trapped by his own need to be stoic and macho and to have a good time out on the town. But the woman in question is “just” a prostitute, right? – I mean, she’s not one of their wives, because they would never treat a lady like that, for goodness’ sake. The operators’ fear of what will happen if one of their darling wives finds out allows the risky situation to carry on much longer than it should. Of course this is reprehensible, but it’s something that happens all the time.
I wanted to show how one act of bigotry taints everything around it, so when Paul gets home, Nat, who’s completely innocent in the situation, becomes the unwitting recipient of whatever disgust and self-loathing he is carrying.
DG: Jeannie Richards, the wife of Mitch Richards who is the big boss at the reactor, is a wildly enjoyable character to read about, but probably not so enjoyable for the other characters to endure within the confines of their little coffee klatch. Jeannie’s smart as a whip, and charming in her way, but also controlling and manipulative behind the perfect mask of her smile. She felt like a caged animal to me a woman whose potential for good had been diverted and corrupted by snide neighborhood power struggles. Were you drawing on any particular example of the archetypical 1950’s housewife in Jeannie’s creation?
AW: I think you are right on target in seeing Jeannie as a “caged animal.” She has that exact same snarling, frantic presence at times, especially when she is alone and can let down her façade of total control. And you’re right, she is very smart—much more streetwise than Nat—but she’s forced to channel her intelligence into social machinations and the losing campaign to promote her husband’s sluggish career.
I loved writing Jeannie’s sections because she serves as the perfect counterbalance to Nat, who is all sweetness and good intention. Sarcasm and sexuality are Jeannie’s weapons of choice, and what could be more fun than writing that? Her sections came to me so quickly and easily that I honestly can’t say where they came from; they had the most momentum of any of the parts of the novel that I wrote. I could just see her setting the table for that party or sneering at Mitch across the room or tunneling madly through his desk drawers in an effort to gather intel on what fool thing he’d been up to this time. But I will say that part of her character must have come from one of the officer’s wives whose deposition served a large part in starting the rumor mill about the operators at the SL-1, a busybody gossip who loved to tell anyone who’d listen about the huge fights one of the operators would have with his wife and how his wife probably deserved it, because her house was a mess. In the same way, Jeannie knows that undercutting other women is one of the quickest ways to get the things she wants, most of which have to come from men. The sad thing is, I think she and Nat are both trapped by their circumstances, and could probably have been friends of a sort if they had both just been honest with each other.
DG: Could you talk a bit about your research process for the Greenland section?
AW: I read a ton of oral histories, many of them found on a terrific web site called thuleforum.com, moderated by the generous Steffen Winther. The experience of being at Camp Century and its support camps, TUTO and Thule, was such a unique and specific one that men seem to have sought one another out in subsequent years to share their memories. I sat and read scores of these personal stories and at times just laughed out loud, and at other times felt great sympathy for men serving at a base that was so isolated and remote that no one was allowed to serve more than six months there at a time because it was considered a psychological hazard. Sometimes, men would hallucinate; I remember reading reports that certain soldiers were convinced they had seen grazing cows and “medium-sized Midwestern cities” out on the polar ice cap. This was all before e-mail and Skype and whatnot, and these men must have felt very, very far away from not only their families but the rest of the human world.
DG: I have to bring up the cars. This book is full of fabulous vintage automobiles. Are you a car aficionado or did this come with the territory of writing about the late 1950’s? Sometimes I felt as if you had a job similar to the producers of Mad Men, in your conjuring of a period piece, and to me the cars are at the very center of it all. But they’re more than just set decoration. Will you speak to how you so skillfully wove these powerful autos into the plot?
AW: The design styles of the 1950s are so instantly recognizable, so timeless and stylized. It’s an aesthetic I find immensely appealing, from home décor to clothing typefaces to, yes, the cars of the day. Is there anything so striking as a big, shiny, sharp-finned Cadillac from the 1950s? I don’t think so.
In a more serious vein, cars played an important psychological role during the fifties, a boom time in which more families than ever could afford their own automobiles. The interstate highway system was built in large part during this decade, starting in 1956. Vehicular mobility came hand-in-hand with upward mobility. A car was a symbol that you were not just going somewhere, but going somewhere.
For Paul, just owning a modest car is a huge achievement; he grew up so poor that he had to steal his brother’s shoes when he left home. So he feels good that he’s provided a car for his family. But then his new boss, Mitch, has this gorgeous Coupe deVille that he throws in Paul’s face any chance he gets. (Paul thinks he’s a success? Bah!)
For the women in the novel, particularly Nat, cars symbolize a freedom that is otherwise unavailable to them. Nat is a military wife who must stay put while her husband traverses the globe, so just being able to drive away from her house for an hour or two is immensely liberating. She and Paul have a notable argument over who gets to drive their family car, and it’s when this car is wrecked that an opening is created for Esrom to slide into the family dynamic. Later, when Paul learns that Nat has been driving Esrom’s car, it’s tantamount to hearing that she’s slept with him. He is horrified and betrayed.
DG: You very deftly highlight for the reader the significance of Idaho Falls in American culture. Of course there is the reactor meltdown, but there are many aspects of the town that I think are notable: the Native American history, the history of the Mormons, the town’s role as a bridge between the West and Midwest. Once you finished the book, did you feel like you were leaving Idaho Falls too?
AW: I’ve always thought Idaho is beautiful, although the most time I’ve spent there was on a road trip in 1999 when I was twenty, and I’m not sure Idaho loved me back: My then-boyfriend (now my husband) and I were sleeping in the back of a Volvo station wagon in Pocatello and a young police officer, probably our exact age woke us up, gave us a very disapproving look and told us we needed to move on. But on that trip we drove all through the western states, including Idaho, and my love affair with the landscape and history of the American West deepened.
The West has a severe natural beauty that has always struck me more strongly than any other landscape. It’s got a fascinatingly layered history, too. By the time Paul arrives to work at the National Reactor testing Station, it’s already been Blackfoot Indian land; a Mormon settlement; the Minidoka internment camp for Japanese-Americans during WWII; a military proving ground; and as of his arrival is the development site for all the major nuclear projects in the United States. If that doesn’t encapsulate the layered strata of history in the West—the land grabs, the power struggles, the manifest destiny and xenophobia and loss and ambition—I don’t know what does.
DG: Finally, please talk a bit about your writing process, and how you are connected to the writing community of military spouses?
AW: I have three young children, so I write fiction very early in the morning, usually about 4 a.m. to 6:15 or whenever my littlest, who is three years old, wakes up. Any mom knows it’s nearly impossible to write with a three-year-old in the house, so once she’s up my writing day is pretty much over.
In the evening, I try to spend a couple of nights a week working on other types of writing, and during that time I keep up my blog, the Military Spouse Book Review. I started the book review almost two years ago, before my own novel had sold; I was nervous that it might not sell, and so I tried to bolster myself with a backup plan that would keep me connected to the writing community and also support military spouses and women veterans, to whom I feel particularly loyal. Coming out of the cocoon of having had three kids in six years (a time in which my reading pace slowed to an embarrassing near-crawl), and with my husband about to go on a relatively short (but still, for me, daunting) six-month deployment, I was learning about all of these military women who wrote, despite the unpredictability and disruptiveness of military life. I wanted to share my response to their work and I wanted to promote their writing.
The Military Spouse Book Review publishes book reviews and essays by women connected to the military, and promotes and catalogues the writing of military spouses and female veterans. It’s a labor of love for me, but has given back tenfold in allowing me to get to know more about these amazing women who write, many of whom have become friends. All women connected to the military are welcome to contribute, and I hope to see the book review continue to grow and support them.
1. In an early scene, Paul and his family stop by a lake for a swim on their move to Idaho. Nat wants to go cliff-jumping, but it’s obvious that Paul would rather she stay on the beach. Why doesn’t Paul want her to join the group of young people on the cliff? Why do you think Nat disregards his fear even when she knows it bothers him?
2. After Paul and his boss, Mitch Richards’s, first meeting, Mitch drives off and leaves Paul stranded at work. Do you think this was a mere oversight, or was it intentional? Was Paul right to be so angry?
3. Paul is often worried about Nat and his daughters. Do you think his fears are justified?
4. When Nat first meets Jeannie at the dinner party, she’s alternately impressed and frightened by her. In what ways does Nat attempt to be the proper 1950s military wife, like Jeannie, and where does she reject this? Do you think she wishes she could be a “better” wife?
5. Mitch’s cream-colored Cadillac plays a large role in the novel. What do you think the car represents for Mitch, for Jeannie, and for Paul? Did you find its end fitting?
6. Paul, Jeannie, Nat, and Esrom all struggle with loneliness in various ways. Which character do you think does the best job overcoming their loneliness?
7. Were you surprised to learn of any of the historically-based details in the novel, such as the National Reactor Testing Station or the Army base below the ice in Greenland? Had you heard of any of these things before, and what conceptions of them did you have coming into the novel? If you did, did knowing that the story was based in part on a real event make it more interesting to you, or less?
8. Should Nat have refused the car from Esrom? Was it alright for her to accept it?
9. Nat’s friend, Patrice, is angry with Nat when she learns of her friendship with Esrom. Do you think Patrice overreacted, or was her frustration with Nat justified? Does her role as a fellow military wife give her particular insight into Nat’s behavior, and if so, why don’t you think she was more sympathetic?
10. Patrice’s anger serves as a wake-up call for Nat. Was Nat naïve in hoping that she could keep her relationship with Esrom a secret from her friend, her neighbors, and most importantly from Paul? Do you think either Nat or Esrom were innocent in the situation? If not, is one of them more to blame than the other?
11. What do you think happens to Paul in the years following the close of the novel? Do you see him living a long and happy life, or does his involvement with the reactor accident catch up with him? If so, what do you see happening to Nat? To Jeannie? To Esrom?