This was the year in which I first became aware of my annual Holy Trinity of reading: End Zone by Don DeLillo, Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen, and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass. Whatever happens to me during any given year, these are the three books I re-read, front to back, like ritual. But this year those books began to speak to each other during my reading experience. Perhaps appropriate to their respective content, I read End Zone during the summer, sufficiently inspired to do sprints on wooded trails during thick July afternoons. I settled into Gass’s book, particularly “The Pedersen Kid,” while the snow piled and piled. Hansen’s story of a stigmatic novitiate was fodder for Lent. This year I noticed that each book values atmosphere over plot, mystery over clarity. Those books are likely brothers.
I returned to The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. I still wonder over the narrative economy of “The Way It Has to Be.” Perhaps moved by similar nostalgia — I began reading Pancake as an undergraduate, around the time I spent most mornings fishing — I read The Art of Angling and Fishing Stories, two rich pocket books with words that will reawaken the souls of even the most cynical anglers. Not to mention that you can find a poem by Ron Rash about a fisherman who hooks his own eye: “My hair sweeps back like an evangelist’s, / as I cross the heart of the lake / toward Swaney’s Landing where I will testify / to those sunburned old drunks / of careless moments that scar us forever.”
I was able to review a few books this year for The Millions, and they are certainly worth revisiting in future years: Its Day Being Gone by Rose McLarney, Hold the Dark by William Giraldi, The Second Sex by Michael Robbins, 300,000,000 by Blake Butler, and Fat Man and Little Boy by Mike Meginnis. Each left a mark on me.
My reading year ended with two gorgeous new books of poetry, both debuts, both formed in the shadow of Roman Catholic culture and thought. Reliquaria by R.A. Villanueva offers shades of parochial school and the Meadowlands and how “my brother told us about the Cemetery of the Holy Sepulchre, / cut in half by the Parkway.” Villanueva’s volume is a lyric documentation of, among other themes, Filipino faith, a belief absolutely bound in the corporeal. Saints populate this book. Bodies, living and dead, real and imagined, are broken. It is also a book of the venial dissensions of childhood: a botched biology class dissection that turns heretical, and when the narrator dares a friend to “throw a bottle of Wite-Out at Christ’s face.” Any book authentic to the Catholic tradition will have its eye toward ashes, and Villanueva’s elegiac moments are sharp: “When you bury me, fold / my arms, neat // over the plateau of a double-breasted suit”; “I promise my ghost will find you / should you want someone else to love.” Villanueva’s book wonders about childhood, family, the distance from original culture, and of things eternal: “So what is it we’ve saved? Skull? Soul? Vulture? / Maybe this earth, turned in on itself and made.”
The second book, Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson, is well-paired with Reliquaria (what minor miracle of publishing that two secular presses — University of Nebraska Press and Milkweed Editions — release exquisitely crafted, meditative books about God and absence during the same year). I’ve been a fan of Johnson’s verse in literary magazines for some time; her poems have the ability to clear the air, to pause the mind. I am preternaturally disposed to love a book that begins with an epigraph of that wracked, devoted disbeliever, Ingmar Bergman. I thought of Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf while reading many of her pieces, including “Deer Rub.” A deer rubs its forelock and antlers against a tree, and the “velvet that covers the antlers // unwinds into straps, like bandages.” And then she manages quite the poetic turn; rain falls, “washes the antlers / of blood, like a curator cleaning the bones // of a saint in the crypt beneath a church / at the end of a century, when the people // have begun to think of the bodies / as truly dead and unraiseable.” This is why I read poetry: to see how words transfigure, how associations bring new life. By the end of the poem, the deer is dead. The bark has regrown. But the scene has a permanence “long after this morning / when the country wakes to another way, // when two people wake in a house / and do not touch each other.”
Johnson’s poems feel like a series of engravings discovered in an abandoned cabin deep in the forest; each is its own folkloric song. In “Confession,” one of the few prose poems in the book, a dream becomes a myth: “I hide under a thought of light, not incineration. The thought is a cloak I wake into gently; it is cold in the room, and I am hungry but whole.” I thought also of “Sea Psalm,” which begins so powerfully: “Lord, this is not your world. I am not yours / but also not mine. Not your passenger. Not your saint at the helm, the machinery // of my hands turning like clocks.” These moments of distance become full when the collection ventures further and further into the cold, as in “Letter from the Ice Field, January,” which is beautifully grotesque, Catholic gothic: “I stopped, and walked down into the crypt, knowing a saint had lain there for centuries. Her mouth lay open, as if to ferry over the word of a messenger. The saint had my face. The saint woke and rose from her coffin, and gave me her skin, which is a map of the earth, and her eyes, which see every planet. I took out my eyes and put hers in, then climbed into her empty coffin, my body glowing as hers had: like a femur in a fire, its marrow burning across the length of me.” The poem ends “Inside me you have learned to speak impossibly.” Bone Map was a reminder of how it felt to be devastated, made new by poetry. I can’t expect much more from a book.
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A bomb named Trinity exploded at 5:29 am on July 16, 1945, in a region of central New Mexico known as La Jornada del Muerto: the Journey of Death. Violence was destined for this stretch of the desert, and such inevitability was not lost on J. Robert Oppenheimer. A rather literary warrior, Oppenheimer wrote poetry at Harvard years before he directed the Manhattan Project. One poem, “Crossing,” likely depicts “ranges barring the sky” near the Norman Bridge Laboratory in California, where Oppenheimer did physics research. The poem’s setting is indistinguishable from Santa Fe, where he led the development of Trinity, as well as the bombs that would later destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer claimed the name Trinity came from John Donne’s representation of the “three person’d God,” though biographer Ray Monk thinks the physicist is being “characteristically evasive.” If the bomb delivered a snippet of God’s wrath, it was a merciless God.
Fat Man and Little Boy, the unique debut novel by Mike Meginnis, is a noteworthy contribution to the literary aftermath of these bombs. Meginnis’s style is perfectly suited to his subject, though that style has a curious antecedent in the prose of poet Dylan Thomas. “The Tree,” a story tucked into Adventures in the Skin Trade, is a surreal fable about a boy who nails a traveling beggar to a tree. Thomas’s prose whispers the violence. The boy is whipped into frenzy by his family’s zealot gardener, who “would sit in his shed and read of the crucifixion, looking over the jars on his window-shelf into the winter nights.” Thomas takes soft steps as he reaches the story’s conclusion, when “blood from the cuts fell shining on to the tree.” His one-sentence paragraphs are not breathless but heavy, and the boy’s perversion of the Passion narrative results in an uneven ending, as if the story was too raw to be edged. Meginnis’s prose commands a similar power, even during its moments of declarative simplicity. Fat Man and Little Boy is what it would sound like if Dylan Thomas wrote about the atomic bomb.
After the novel’s short, imagistic prelude, the bombs dropped on Japan — Fat Man and Little Boy — become human. Fat Man opens his eyes inside a bunker, surrounded by destruction. He sobs “without apparent cause, or with causes too trivial for words: the way his walrus shadow climbs the wall so that his head looms on the ceiling like an astral body.” He is whole in body, but only a child in narrative age. He “remembers how it was to explode.” Little Boy, “gawky and thin,” whose “bones all protrude from his limbs like knobs on a young tree,” calls his larger friend “brother.” Their life together begins in kindness. Little Boy asks if he can walk by Fat Man’s side, and hold his hand, and speak to him. But Fat Man looks around to see the destruction they wrought. Meginnis’s talent is his ability to make the reader feel empathy for souls who killed so many.
Do bombs have souls? Is this metempsychosis or magic? If the bombs were not alive, then what caused these new births? These are literal questions for a surreal narrative, but they reveal Meginnis’s ability to make the absurd as tangible as the real. The brothers walk through destroyed cities, where “Bodies that from a distance seemed done with life, but, more closely observed, revealed themselves as dreaming, bleeding, faintly breathing, on a bed of any given thing, or dirt. Some also clutched knives, or bowls with jagged broken edges, or horseshoes, or broomsticks, or other improvised weapons.” They know death is near again. The bombs’ destruction was not merely one bright, loud moment. Now “a man at the edge of the fire standing in what was left of his home, calling out. He was inaudible, his mouth was open. The walls were collapsed to knee-level heaps; there was a metal bowl fused to his chin. Other kitchen items littered the ground around him, and there was a table overturned. He wrung his hands in front of him, pleading. His skin fell off his body in sheets. It hung from his fingertips and swung like streamers as he moved his hands.”
The novel’s first act is funereal. Meginnis is in his absolute element when he embraces the varying registers of folklore, when the specific lives next to the abstract. Like many folkloric characters in this tradition, the brothers are obsessed with birth: their own origin narratives, but also the round bellies of pregnant women and the distended sections of expectant animals. One scene on a farm is so eerie that it becomes eternal. A farmer tells the brothers that the “pigs must think you are their fathers” as laughter “dies in his throat. A darkness passes over his face. He understands something that he did not before. The hog shadows grow longer; the animals themselves do not move.”
Many pages in this novel feel like engravings, and those meticulous emblems carry the novel through uneven moments, as when the story strays from its folkloric center. The novel’s second act brings the brothers to France, and the trip first sounds like a joke, but the punchline is real. Their misadventures increase their dramatic humanity, but the book’s profluence slows until Meginnis carries the brothers to Hollywood. Fat Man has married Rosie, the owner of a hotel in France, and they have a daughter, Maggie. Fat Man is being chased by more than one character who wants revenge for the atomic blasts, but the family attempts as much normalcy as anthropomorphic weapons of mass destruction can manage. They come across a restaurant called “Atomic Burger,” and Fat Man hesitates, thinking “it’s in pretty bad taste” to eat there. The scene is hilarious enough to make one cringe, and signals Meginnis’s return to narrative control. The novel’s final quarter shifts between suspense and transcendence.
During the novel’s dramatic end, the family escapes to see a movie: “Seeing a movie in Hollywood is like going to church. Everyone dresses up. The ushers guide you to a place where you’ll feel welcome or at least out of the way. The room swells with talk until the show starts, and then everybody shuts up. The audience’s eyes swell with hope and need while the music blares and then, when the talking starts, they settle in. This one will be like the others. But you’ve got to respect it. The ritual of the movie is more important than the movie.” Meginnis has said that the novel had its origins in filmic representations of the explosions, how the cloud crawled wider and wider, changing the land forever. Meginnis has written one of the best, most natural novels about the atomic bombs. Dennis Bock’s 2001 novel, The Ash Garden, also examined the intersection between American and Japanese lives in the decades after the blasts. Bock’s novel, though beautifully written, feels more orchestrated and less organic in comparison. Literature often seeks to intellectualize methods of war, and to craft fictional revisions of conflict that offer transcendent theses. In making the bombs human, Meginnis switches the expected fictional order; he leads with idea, and then steps aside.
Fat Man and Little Boy earns its clever conceit, and carries its greatest power when localized to settings that felt the heat of these bombs. The novel begins in a broken Japan and ends in a fabulist Hollywood, where destruction often gets a second take. Fat Man and Little Boy is a second take on the legacy of American bombs. Despite the novel’s experimentation, it is ultimately more fact than fiction.