Uncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb
By Ian Woollen
Coffeetown Press, September 2014
406 pages, $18.95
Reviewed by Nick Sweeney
For many, the Cold War is considered a blip in history, in a world very different from the one we are in now. We grew up after the Berlin Wall fell. We missed out on one of the most historical menaces of the 20th century, the Russians and their Communism. The closest we can to McCarthyism is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and the notion of betraying our country is as close as a John Le Carré spy thriller. In Uncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb, Ian Woollen drives the reader on a historical road trip from Indianapolis, Indiana to Great Tusk Island, Maine, through the Red Scare to the AIDS pandemic and everything in between. This is the Great American Cold War novel. This is a novel of spies and journalists. This is a novel of failures and attempted successes; this is a novel of love and despair and, moreover, this is a novel about family.
The novel is about the life and times of Ward Wangert, his wife Mary, and their children, the curious intellectual Anthony, and the troublesome twins Duncan and Vincent. Their family saga begins in the infancy of a Cold War with bomb shelters and the plague of communism, travels through the beginning of the Indiana Pacers basketball team, with fleeting images of the JFK assassination thrown in skillfully. It continues through the anti-Vietnam War protests, the counter culture of the 60’s, the crumbling of Russia and finally ends on the onset of the most devastating plague of the AIDS pandemic. This novel is about all these things happening at once. It’s about the lines that make up the big picture. Woollen is a terrific guide for the reader. His opening to this family saga shows more than simple description:
Not to worry, darling. Time behaves strangely in quantum physics and the human mind. Sit back, sip your drink, and allow words and phrases such as “sock hop” and “fallout,” “Studebaker,” and “Red Scare” to summon up what images they will. Trust that your evening libation tastes pretty much the same in 1951 as it does today. And if you are a member of gen-whatever for whom the year 1951 has no reference point, imagine a period in American life when the term “unwed mother” had a nasty sting.
The novel jumps from there and moves at a steady pace. Some readers may feel that this train ride runs just a bit slower than necessary, a fair criticism, but I believe that it moves slowly and deliberately to allow readers to full appreciate the life and times as it progresses. Trust in Woollen, you won’t be disappointed.
In many ways, this reads and blossoms into a Chekhov story, or better yet, a collection of interrelated Chekhov stories with the same characters. It acts very much like one of those old television shows, the same characters in the same setting, moving slowly forward in time. Woollen acknowledges this early on, as Ward and Mary talk about the never-started novel that the great short story writer had always planned to write. In some ways, this is that novel. Every sentences teases into the next. Things that are found early return late. There are no loose ends, no showboating or stylistic choices for the sake of including them. Every scene is necessary. Yet, at the same time, they act as if they could be read individually. Whether it’s the early adventures on Great Tusk Island, the daily work day of He Who Remains Classified, the school years spent at Rokeby School, or the decline of Indianapolis, Woollen keeps the reader occupied but in a way that doesn’t make it seem like he’s fooling or delaying you. They are stories within stories constructed like a finely crafted Matryoshka doll set.
Chekhov continues to be an undercurrent as the novel progresses. Off and on, Woollen introduces Ward as a writer, someone interested in the idea of creating his own journey. In the beginning, he fails. However, over time, and out of admiration of both the actual Anton Chekhov and his wife Mary, he creates his own story of sorts, the “Mary and Ward’s Nighttime Tale” chapters offer some of the most sincere moments in the story, as their relationship twists and turns, their bed-time story offers some comfort. They are peppered throughout the stories at the most perfect times.
The best writers don’t merely write, they ask questions. In this case, Woollen seemed driven from a lifetime of inquisitive thinking. On his personal website, he goes into detail about the early seedlings that would later take hold and become Uncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb:
One seed for the plot came from my mother’s early life. Two years out of college in 1951, she was hired by the State Department to start a school in Moscow for the children of English-speaking diplomats. She lived in Moscow from 1951 to 1954. The Cold War had begun. Many of the Moscow details in the book come from her diaries. And she really did take the family poodle with her. The Anglo-American school still exists today. My brother and I always wondered: was she a C.I.A. spook? Another inspiration came in 1989. I was driving home from work, turned on the radio and heard the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hit by an inexplicably large wave of emotion, I pulled over. Suddenly it was visible – the insidious Cold War TENSION that pervaded American life for so long that it blurred into normalcy. I began to think about a novel that would capture the charged interweave of big-stage influences with a local, day-to-day family drama.
Woollen is able to weave history and fiction in a way that transcends genre. This isn’t a historical fiction novel, it’s not a romance novel, and it’s not even a spy thriller. It’s all of the above and at the same time, none of them. It’s a saga, a personal one stuck in the middle of something bigger. Late in the novel, Ward explains the importance of his family’s legacy: “Someday Anthony will write our story and we’ll be enshrined as a very curious footnote to the history of the Cold War.” Woollen reminds us of the importance of details, as Chekhov did time and time again. It’s about the edges of the big picture, and in this case, the big picture that continues to be seen even today.
The fear of the bomb begins this story and it’s that fear finally realized after years of waiting that brings it to a close, a perfect Chekhov’s gun, and it’s one for the ages. The fear of communism found in the crowded corners of rooms in Indianapolis seems completely different from that of the fear found on Great Tusk Island in the end. We still have this lingering fear of the nearby other and Woollen is at his best here. You get this feeling that as much as this family has gone through, they still harbor their own secrets and their internal struggle they all have to protect those they love. It’s the Cold War looking in the mirror and seeing how far we’ve come.
Uncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb ticks at a slow pace just as Woollen’s own personal doomsday clock reaches midnight, and the reader is exposed to the best and worst of Americana over the last fifty years. The book ends the way it should, the house of cards constructed falls as it was always meant to. This is craftsmanship at its finest. This passive thriller, this lengthy epic, may not be for everyone. And that’s fine. But for those readers interested in diving head first into the deepest rabbit holes of our own history, this is one you just can’t miss.