When hunting for a summer read, the obvious thing to look for is explosions. Explosions and something a little sexy, a little decadent, a little radical. Moving cars, motels, an impossible goal, down-and-out characters. James Reich's Bombshell is all of these except inside out. Imagine an unhinged heroine, a criminal road trip, a dark race to jumpstart America's first total nuclear meltdown. Bombshell is an entirely creative recasting of the summer read, peppered with historical tidbits that will inspire both your fascination and repulsion.
The book opens twenty-five years after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, with radical feminist Varyushka Cash sneaking across the New Mexico desert armed with explosives and dressed in fatigues making her way to the Trinity Obelisk, which commemorates the first detonation of a nuclear device on U.S. soil. She wires it with plastic explosives and begins the countdown of her own bomb, rushing to make it to the same spot from which J. Robert Oppenheimer (aka the Father of the Atomic Bomb) watched his own detonation.
The Trinity Explosion, 16 milliseconds after detonation. Image: Wikimedia Commons
But the destruction of the obelisk is only the first in Cash's carefully planned terrorist itinerary -- the real target is the Indian Point Nuclear Plant thirty-eight miles north of New York City. Told in thrilling spurts, between Cash's stealth mission and the CIA's effort to discover the terrorist's identity before another attack, Bombshell is the perfect excuse to take a tour though American nuclear history. I promise you will be surprised.
As a character, Cash is everything you would want from a rabble-rouser -- raised in a women-only shelter, intimately familiar with San Francisco's Tenderloin, and possessor of a magical, miracle birth: Reich writes, "At the exact moment that Cash's scalp crowned out of her mother and the first blood of her placenta touched the rubber sheets of the hospital bed, the meltdown [of Chernobyl] had begun." She's also fanatic about Valerie Solanas (infamous for shooting Andy Warhol and writing the S.C.U.M. manifesto).
Bombshell is an interesting take on the immigrant story. Cash, born in the Zone of Alienation, is an exile who can never return home. In dreams, Cash reimagines the Pripyat abandoned hospital. She sees peeling paint, cobwebs, intravenous drips standing "with their collapsed sacs and tubes dangling where the evacuees had been hastily connected," an albino swallow's nest in the padding of a wheelchair, X-ray prints "hang black against dead light boxes," and charts and files lie scattered on the floor. (If this peaks your interest, take a look at these unreal photos taken at the Zone of Alienation by Time Magazine twenty-five years after the Chernobyl incident.)
Reich tends to adopt a mellifluous tone, but he is at his best when evoking the visual language of comic books. In one scene Cash jumps into the Rio Grande to escape the authorities. Her clothes and bag become dead weight and she struggles to stay afloat. Reich writes, "Water flecked and then poured into her windpipe as the current hauled her down. Cash began to drown, kicking weakly and reaching blindly into the nothingness that swallowed her. She coughed water into water. Silver bulbs exploded." Very Tank Girl. Explosions, heroines, terrorists. It's what summer is all about.