1950s, abuse of authority, Andria Williams, atomic energy, book review, historical fiction, Idaho, literary fiction, nuclear meltdown, predictable plot, sexism, small-mindedness, tension from silence, United States Army
Review: The Longest Night, by Andria Williams
Random House, 2016. 383 pp. $27
As Chekhov famously observed, a playwright mustn’t put a loaded rifle on stage if he doesn’t plan on having a character fire it. This novel, about a poorly engineered nuclear reactor, obeys the master’s dictum, to good effect. Unfortunately, however, the narrative pulls out that age-old device too many times, using characters as the rifles that you know will go off.
It’s 1959, and army Specialist Paul Collier has been assigned to a team in Idaho Falls, Idaho, that operates a nuclear reactor, among the country’s first. In moving his wife, Nat, and two young daughters to this remote town, Paul expects his family to mold their lives to his. He’s the breadwinner, subject to strict Army routine, which, to his mind, means that Nat must tend the kids, manage their home, and make sure that nothing and no one get in his way. To some extent, Nat agrees. It’s the 1950s, before American feminism had coalesced into a recognizable movement; these people, in their early twenties, have never come in contact with a differing outlook; and since their livelihood depends on Paul’s career, his demands seem reasonable, in a way.
However, there’s much more to it, and this is where The Longest Night does best. Paul, a self-willed, emotionally guarded man with a painful past, keeps his own counsel no matter what the cost. He’s not about to tell Nat that the reactor has obvious design flaws that make it unsafe, or that his immediate superiors cover up the problems for fear that the army won’t want to hear about them and will punish the whistleblower. Nor will Paul tell Nat that Master Sergeant Richards, his drunken, lecherous boss, has been hazing him and making sexual remarks about her, all of which Paul must swallow to be a good soldier. For her part, Nat, though more open than her husband, keeps quiet about how lonely she is, having no friends in a remote army town, and how bored to be chained to the house with two young children while Paul drives the car to work. She says nothing, either, about the persecution she suffers from Jeannie Richards, the master sergeant’s wife, a sadist in a beehive hairdo.
Even without reading the entire jacket flap–this one is further evidence that you should always stop after the first paragraph or so–the reader knows that the reactor will go haywire. There’s just too much talk and worry about how unsafe it is, and how nobody really knows how the infernal machine will behave. But to me, the best parts of The Longest Night depend on the tension of what can’t be said. Williams excels at depicting the pain of silence, whether in the social gatherings where Jeannie Richards cuts apart the other army wives or the growing estrangement between Nat and Paul, which seems menacing, even tragic. Two good people deserve each other yet can’t manage to talk.
But having set up this cold war, Williams has to bring matters to a head, which is where The Longest Night falls short. On an excursion with her children, Nat meets Esrom, who bails them out of a sticky situation, and you just know he’ll show up again. Why? Because too much has been made of Nat’s poor driving, and Esrom, born to a ranch, is also an auto mechanic. That tell-tale harbinger would pass muster if Esrom weren’t cardboard–gentler than Paul, sensitive, an excellent listener who amuses Nat’s daughters with tales of coyotes, snakes, and horses, who comes around to clean the gutters without being asked, and predictably falls for Nat but would never, ever say or do anything untoward.
Since Paul’s away on tour in Greenland, the community comes down hard on Nat for flouting the army wife’s code of honor. (How he got to Greenland makes sense, sort of; how Williams brings an antagonist across is path seems too convenient by half.) But in Nat’s mind, she’s done nothing wrong, because she hasn’t cheated on Paul, strictly speaking. Esrom and she just spend time together. She laments that you’re never supposed to admit that you’re bored or feel longing or want anything other than what everyone else has. Williams makes this point well. She brilliantly conveys the small-minded, backbiting world of the army base, with its petty cabals and viciousness. Yet how can Nat, who’s had a rocky sexual history, be surprised at their reaction, which, after all, has some justice to it?
I think Williams has tried to play this tricky situation both ways. She wants Nat to be completely sympathetic and Esrom to be pure, because that puts the community in the worst possible light. But Williams has already made that point, so by portraying Esrom as a total innocent, a portrait that Nat accepts, Williams has put no obstacles in their way. That, in turn, makes The Longest Night entirely too predictable and less genuine than it should be.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.