An Appalachian memoir suffused with atomic energy.
Early on in this brief narrative, Freeman (Sociology/Simon Fraser Univ.; Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia, 2015) writes, “I want to revive a peculiar genre—sociological poetry,” a term she attributes to C. Wright Mills in describing James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. This book is substantively different than Agee’s, though it has plenty of photos (Agee collaborated with the famed photographer Walker Evans), drawings, and assorted cultural references. It is more like a tone poem, a slim volume filled with very short sections—vignettes, memories—that seem to follow no chronological pattern yet keep circling back to the fact that in her grandparents’ hometown of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, nuclear power was ubiquitous, like oxygen, so you barely noticed it. It was only in retrospect that the author realized the deadly connection between this “secret city engineered by the United States government,” with the deceivingly pastoral name, and the atomic destruction of Hiroshima. “For those of us in its orbit,” she writes, “its spinning is our spinning; its hard acorn body, always already full of future potential, is also our collective body, as we embody culture and place.” Within the book’s analytical orbit, Walter Benjamin and Icarus connect with R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” and Adam Bomb from the Garbage Pail Kids finds something of a kindred spirit in the comic-book superhero Captain Atom. Readers also learn that the co-founder of Waffle House “worked as a counterintelligence agent for the U.S. government during the Manhattan Project,” and the author’s own grandfather was an atomic courier, driving his truck full of secret cargo. The result is by no means an anti-nuclear polemic, but the cumulative impact of the matter-of-fact sections gives readers a Cold War chill at the cultural pervasiveness of such destructive energy.
Childhood memories with a nightmarish tinge.