Wieland, whose striking debut, The Names of the Lost (1992), plumbed the depths behind a gory series of real-life newspaper headlines, returns after two volumes of short stories with a thoughtful fictionalization of the ultimate media Other: the Unabomber.
Long before her stepfather started mailing out explosives designed to alert the world to the dangers of scientific progress, Jane Gillooly was already haunted by him. From her very first explosive memory of the man her Christian Scientist mother married to his abortive career as a Berkeley mathematician and his retreat to a New Mexico cabin whose location only she knows, she’s never been able to escape the man who tells himself: “I would never harm a woman.” Now her stepbrother Charlie Parker, a Boston schoolteacher, tracks her to Las Vegas, where she’s working as a stripper; reveals that Barbara Eberle, the Harvard secretary killed by one of his stepfather’s bombs, was his wife; and demands that Jane tell him where the “Professor” (the only name Wieland gives him) has holed up. Jane’s instinctive reaction is to run. She drops the alias she’s been working under, quits her job, flies to Santa Fe, and starts teaching dance to schoolgirls. But Charlie catches up with her again and demands to share her fatal knowledge. Despite the sensationalistic events, Wieland’s approach is ruminative, seeking to approach the Professor’s perturbations of the public sphere through an increasingly intimate succession of monologues—Jane’s, Charlie’s, the Professor’s—and a revelatory series of metaphors: striptease, seduction, Hiroshima, the jazzman Charlie Parker, Christian Science, the Birdman of Alcatraz, Le Sacre du Printemps, and—finally and most successfully—fatherhood itself.
The result is high-concept fiction that’s never exploitative: an impassioned attempt to lay bare the unthinkable motives of both the bomber and his nemesis that ends by confessing how hopeless any such attempt must be.