A comprehensive love story stretches from the birth of X-rays to the detonation of the first nuclear weapons, and links it all with rural America between the wars.
Ray Foster carries X-ray equipment in his truck and has “Phenomenologist” painted on the side. His experience runs the gamut of the expressions of war and the insidious technology of it; he was gassed by Germans in WWI, and is fascinated by all things headed toward atomic reaction, from firecrackers on up. Back in the States he becomes known as a photographer, but before long meets Opal, who can talk to him about nihilism, and explain what a “glory hole” is: the hottest part of a glassblower’s furnace. The two have chemistry, quite literally: “I like it when you talk your science stuff,” Opal says. The newlyweds are soon off on the adventure of their marriage, first a return to Ray’s Knoxville, then to a farm Opal inherits. Their travels take them through a convenient tour of contemporary science: moonshiners, accidental electrocutions, Clarence Darrow arguing for Evolution, the Office of Rural Electrification, where Ray eventually comes to work. When a friend dies, a votive candle isn’t enough for these two: they toss a chunk of phosphorous into water to watch the light sink away. It’s an absence of chemistry that keeps Ray and Opal from starting a family of their own, but before long they happen upon a foundling they name Lightfoot. At her best, Wiggins (John Dollar, 1988; Eveless Eden, 1995, etc.) here belongs in the company of Eudora Welty. Still, the connection between modern science and Ray and Opal’s landscape can seem strained—“Like the Big Dipper, which has seven identifiable stars, the Tennessee pours through seven states”—and where would this story go if not to the tragedy of radiation poisoning for one of its principals?
Still, the author brings these characters to life even as Ray (as in ray of light) and Opal (opalescence) begin to seem overtly apocryphal.