VOLATILE SECRECIES – The Longest Night by Andria Williams
Reviewed by Carmelinda Blagg
O-Dark-Thirty Contributing Editor
Eighteen years before the meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, another largely forgotten nuclear accident occurred. On January 3, 1961, a bitterly cold Idaho winter night, the reactor known as the SL-1 exploded at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho Falls. Three of its operators were killed.
Andria Williams adapts this tragedy as the compelling framework of her debut novel The Longest Night. Set against the constraints imposed by a culture of silence and conformity in late 1950s America, she explores the dangers of those early days of experimental nuclear technology alongside the complexities and mysteries of marriage, issues of trust and betrayal, the daunting loneliness faced by the military wife.
A brief prologue offers a frantic snapshot of that frigid night in 1961, as Paul Collier, an Army specialist assigned to operate and maintain the reactor, watches fire trucks and ambulances racing to the reactor site following the explosion. From there, we are pulled back to June of 1959. Paul and his wife Nat, along with their two young daughters, are newly relocating to Idaho Falls where Paul is due to begin his new assignment at the nuclear reactor (here, referred to as the CR-1). They stop their car just outside the Idaho state line to stretch their legs along the rocky shores of a lake, where Nat – a carefree California girl who grew up swimming and diving in San Diego – sees a group of swimmers on a rock and rushes to join them. After diving into the water fully clothed, she emerges, exhilarated and laughing, until she realizes Paul’s anger at her actions. Her impulsiveness is intimately familiar to him, linked to what he loves about her and what he most fears. What follows in subsequent chapters – alternating between Nat’s point of view and Paul’s, is a portrait of a marriage in a pre-feminist America where the pressures of gender norms were as much of a trap for men as they obviously were for women. Paul’s very different upbringing with alcoholic parents, “…in a rural Maine cabin as quiet as a deep snow, punctuated by outbursts of inexplicable and embarrassing violence,” has instilled in him an intrepid reserve and a need for discipline and control that at times, threatens to undermine the love he feels for Nat, and the larger hopes he has for his family after moving to Idaho Falls.
Such marital tensions play out in parallel with Paul’s growing realization that the reactor he and two other operators are responsible for maintaining is dangerously unstable. And, that his boss, a recklessly arrogant Master Sergeant Richards, isn’t much interested in hearing Paul’s concerns. Richards has his own problems. He’s close to retirement from a less than stellar military career; he has a fondness for booze and womanizing, and a marriage where hostilities and resentments simmer just below the surface. His feckless wife, Jeannie, is the only other character who gets some POV chapters of her own from which we learn a lot of unsettling truths about their married life and how she scrupulously labors to create an illusion of perfection reflected in those “vacuum marks freshly ridged into the carpet like paths to righteousness.”
Williams constructs her narrative with skill and patience, creating a tension that steadily mounts. And it isn’t just that faulty reactor that poses a danger in her story. It is more largely, the volatility of marriage itself, and of her main characters – Nat’s restlessness and spontaneity; Paul’s burdensome and rigid caution; the callousness of Richards; his wife’s neatly polished and well-honed bitterness.
But Williams’ sympathies are especially sharp when it comes to Nat. She captures her struggles as a military wife adapting to their new home – a place markedly different from San Diego – with its long and frigid winters and its arid landscape of “Mormon farmland, mostly potatoes – and finally the endless-looking desert, as brown and rough as sandpaper.” She tends to her household – faithfully packing her husband’s lunches, striving to care for her toddler daughters, struggling to make new friends in a neighborhood where “One man in the house crowded out everyone else.” All the while, she reproaches herself for her growing restlessness. During one interval when Paul is away, and with little else to turn to beyond the realm of her domestic duties, Nat’s days become dauntingly lonely and boring until she meets a young cowboy, Esrom, whose warmth and easy charms threaten to test her faithfulness.
Meanwhile, Paul’s concerns about the reactor leave him anxious and guarded, unable to communicate to Nat his fears about an accident he knows could endanger his own family. “He realized that he was lying to her daily. It was in her own best interest but he still felt guilty.” Paul’s workdays at the reactor, the problems he and his fellow operators struggle with, are convincingly rendered and, at crucial intervals, downright chilling. And his resentment towards Richards is sealed during a celebratory evening of drinking where he witnesses Richards in an act of cruel misogyny. Later, he reflects: “A sick feeling stirred inside him, the gut-cold confirmation of his life-long worldview: that this darkness was really what life was. Anything else you made for yourself was a temporary and tentative fiction.”
In the latter half of the novel, Williams manages, for the most part, an impressive juggling of plot twists, the various pieces of which converge dramatically in her final chapters, though at times things threaten to tip into excess. But Williams keeps her balance, mostly by maintaining her focus on Nat and Paul, portraying with poignancy and honesty their mutual struggle to love and understand one another. At one point Nat realizes: “…she cared for Paul in a way that was beyond love, beyond this life, that shocking intimacy of marriage and creation. How did anyone withstand it? It was like weaving your entrails together; it was beautiful and awful.”
Rich insights such as these at once elevate and deepen Williams’ narrative. In The Longest Night she has created a landscape of multiple perils – at once intimate, existential and more largely reflective of the volatile world we’ve created. And she has done so with prose that is consistently beautiful, incisive and humanely perceptive.
Carmelinda Blagg’s fiction has previously appeared in Avatar Review, Halfway Down the Stairs, Falling Star Magazine, Wanderlust Review, O-Dark-Thirty, and the anthology Best of The Web 2009. In 2010 she received an Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council. She lives in Bethesda, MD, where she is a member of The Writers Center.