“I’m just saying that if the human race is doomed . . . , then that’s pretty sad, and the best we can aim for is a giggle and a smooch.”
—An Atomic Romance (2005)
Mason’s latest book, An Atomic Romance (2005), presents another extraordinary female character, like Christie Wheeler and Nancy Culpepper, a woman both self-assured and comfortable in her own skin. Mason has said of her character Julia, the love interest of the protagonist Reed Futrell, “I love Julia. I like the way she doesn’t care about her appearance and yet Reed finds her so sexy.” She adds in the Reader’s Guide to An Atomic Romance, “Although Julia is practical, no-nonsense, not caught up in illusions, she dreams of making a scientific discovery that will cure disease. She is sensual and vibrant, ready to have fun with string theory or Hawking’s space time” (272). Julia is a woman who knows herself and wants to get to the very marrow and core of life if she can. She is a woman who has started on her second life, having raised two daughters and put herself through school. She challenges Reed to begin to question his work at the uranium-enrichment plant where he works, preparing fuel for nuclear-power plants.
From the very beginning, with Julia’s pick-up line and Reed’s response, we know that these two will be a match for each other. “So. What do you think of Stephen Hawking’s explanation of space-time,” Julia says to Reed, as she sits beside him at a hospital cafeteria, on seeing him for the first time. Reed responds, “It’s turtles all the way down,” referencing the standard reply to the world is flat nonsense (39). This is an atomic romance because these two individuals are smart and playful and far more interested in the limitlessness than in the limits of the universe. As Mason says in her discussion of her two protagonists, “The romance between Reed and Julia is fired by a shared sense of wonder. They are essentially rational, looking to science to answer their questions. They are open to possibility and fun. They are entertained, not threatened by, the possibility of the indifference of the universe” (271-72). Mason makes it clear that this is a book “about aspiration, the yearning toward the ultimate. People always want to find some higher meaning or transcendence, especially nowadays, in our post-9/11 angst” (272). Reed and Julia, Mason says, “are more attracted to Stephen Hawking’s questions about time and space than they are to easy answers to who we are and why” (272).
Reed’s and Julia’s is a contemporary love story, set within the complex social and environmental worlds in which we live and their interconnectedness. It deals with the ethics of everyday living and the work we do which can affect the lives of others in the larger community around us. Reed Futrell, an engineer at the nuclear facility where his father was killed, is a loyal employee and a patriotic American, who prefers not to think too deeply about the danger involved in what he does or the ethics of his job; and that attitude brings him in conflict with Julia, a biologist and a deeply caring individual. Their off-and-on relationship is another manifestation of the times, and when the community around the plant is found to be polluted with radioactive residue, their relationship and Reed’s understanding of his connection with the community come to a dramatic climax. The interplay between the wit and comic interaction of the two characters and the deadly seriousness of the environmental subject of the book is played against the lyrical and lofty ideas of Stephen Hawking’s time and space theories. This is a contemporary story about the effects of our careless and cavalier attitude toward planet Earth and the relationship between the individual and the greater community.
Reed and Julia are different from the searching, post-modernist, angst-ridden characters of most contemporary literature; and while Reed certainly grows from his experiences as a caregiver to his aging mother and learns to question the authority of those who control the “nuclear buttons” where he works, he is wonderfully irreverent and anti-heroic. He can digest the sage advice of his best buddy Burl, who tells him, “Sometimes, life is just so—you know, goddammit—whatever, that the best thing to do is just enjoy the spectacle” (231). He can likewise offer up his own sage words, with shades of Mark Twain interwoven in Mason’s clever prose: “He thought that if Julia never came back to him, he would light out for some other territory. He would become a hermit and surround himself with dogs. He could be happy with dogs. Dogs had always offered him moral instruction. Happy to be anywhere. Burl’s motto could have been a dog’s. Dogs were storage drums of happiness [italics mine]” (216).
Mason creates an extraordinary metaphor with the expanding universe, which like Yeats’ widening gyre, augers destruction; things will surely and ultimately fall apart. And yet if this is the perfect image for our post 9/11 world, with its terrorists, endless wars, and environment disasters, Mason’s book gingerly skirts and skips through such dour minefields with two characters who are both serious and earnest about the impending doom and blithely reconciled to do their best, carry on, and find a cure for cancer. Reed thinks to himself: “But what difference would it make? Some dark, mysterious force was pulling the universe apart. The universe was expanding at an ever-increasing rate, like a burst of fireworks shooting into oblivion. . . How could it be that the human race existed, and that he was here to observe it? . . . . Now it hit him more deeply than ever what an unlikely pinprick in the absurd fabric of space-time human existence was” (247).
Bobbie Ann Mason has given us an extraordinary range of literature that provides readers with insights into some of the most significant questions we face today—questions about the planet, about war, about the consumerism that often threatens to overwhelm us, about family and social values. She has been consistently absorbed in the truth of her characters and the veracity of their stories, as she has interwoven the myriad tales that compose her canon. She has portrayed her own Hopewell, Kentucky, as a fictional world that we will not likely forget and that will make her long remembered as writer who captured her time . . . and yet still transcends it.
Mason, Bobbie Ann. An Atomic Romance. New York: Random House Trade
Paperbacks, 2006. Print.
_______________. Clear Springs. New York: Harper Collins Perennial Press,
_______________. Feather Crowns. New York: Harper Collins Perennial Press,
_______________. In Country. New York: Harper Collins Perennial Press,
_______________. “Interview.” The Missouri Review 20.3 (Fall 1997): 1-15.
_______________. Nancy Culpepper Stories. New York: Random House Trade
Paperbacks, 2007. Print.
______________. Shiloh and Other Stories.
Mendes, Guy. “Interview.” Living by Words. Online Audio @
Morgan, Robert. "Nature Is Yet a Stranger." Online @
Price, Joanna. Understanding Bobbie Ann Mason. Columbia: University of
South Carolina Press, 2000. Print.
—Dr. S. Bailey Shurbutt
Appalachian Studies Program Coordinator