You read enough books and you get real familiar, real quick, with a few things. One of these is the pervasive habit of underestimating an audience's intelligence. Many authors seem to think that no plot point will be noticed, no emotional moment will make an impact, unless it is banged into the reader's head with a sledgehammer and then lit with a giant flashing neon sign. Thankfully, from the first time I ever read an Ann Cummins short story, I knew she was not one of those. That was "Red Ant House," it ran in a 2001 issue of McSweeney's, and I was immediately struck by the scrubbed raw, stark beauty of her prose. "Red Ant House" went on to appear in Best American Short Stories 2002, and lent its title to her first book, a story collection. Now Ann Cummins has followed it up with Yellowcake, a novel just as scrubbed raw and spare band beautiful as her shorter works, with nary a sledgehammer or neon sign in sight.
The title refers to both meanings of the term. The book centers around the lives of some aging men, former employees of a now-defunct uranium processing mill on Navajo land, in the border area between New Mexico and Colorado. Ryland Mahoney, the former foreman, is ill with emphysema. He no longer has the energy to do much except sit and think, and thus becomes the stationary hub around which his family and all the interlocking storylines spin out. Ryland's wife Rosy, an almost terrifyingly capable, bustling, organized woman, runs the house. She keeps track of all her husband's doctor appointments, baby-sits the grandkids, and collects documents to present at the constant meetings. In front of local politicos, mine representatives, Navajo tribal elders, and lawyers, Rosy makes the case for financial compensation for all the sick millworkers -- of which there are many. Even as she does all this, she's helping her daughter plan a wedding. (That's where the other yellow cake comes in.)
It's clear right off the bat that Ryland is a stand-up guy. The same cannot be said of his lifelong friend and former brother-in-law, Sam Behan. Sam was a drunk, a user, who carried on a long affair with a much younger Navajo woman, Alice Atcitty, at the same time he was married to Rosy's sister Lily. His job required him to climb around all day on a huge pile of radioactive mine tailings: "Someplace there's a photo of Sam on the catwalk they erected at the top of the pile, standing up there smoking a cigarette, on the clock, his face a study in indifference, Superman, to look at him." Despite this, despite living in a home downwind from this same pile of tailings, and despite being an emotionally crippled and generally nasty piece of work, he came out healthy while Ryland's lungs are "shriveled sacks," working at half capacity. Sam took off to Florida years earlier, but when he comes back to town to watch Ryland and Rosy's daughter get married, all sorts of long-buried resentments bubble back up to the surface.
I've read two books in the last two months where the identity of a character's father is a closely guarded, lifelong secret, revealed at a climactic moment. This is never how these things really go. In the real world, if someone has fathered a child he shouldn't, it's never REALLY a secret. It's an elephant in the room, something everyone knows and doesn't mention. So my admiration for Ann Cummins grew even more when she dealt with this situation so deftly. Midway through the book, Sam says something about his "kid." He's referring to Delmar Atcitty, Alice's son, a wild, charismatic Navajo "half breed" fresh from prison, who we've previously met. You realize suddenly that, of course, Sam must be his dad: without realizing, you already knew.
There are many stories in Yellowcake, and Cummins jumps in and out of the character's heads at will. The constant throughout, though, is that the women hold fast while the men fall apart. Delmar's cousin Becky Atcitty holds down a good job at the bank, ferries around Delmar in her truck because he lost his license, and attends the same meetings that Rosy does -- on behalf of her own dying father. It's the wives, daughters, and mothers who come to all the meetings, helplessly trying to figure out what should be done for the decaying, poisoned mine and the decaying, poisoned people who ran it. Rosy's sister Lily, so successful at creating a full life for herself after her cheating husband ran off, has to fight to keep it together when Sam comes back to betray her yet again.
Ann Cummins has an incredible gift for revealing character in tiny moments, glimpses, turns of phrase. "You're my memory", Ryland says to Rosy, whenever she reminds him of yet another meeting or medical procedure he's forgotten. It's a sentence freighted with resignation, dependence, sadness, love. It tells us far more about their relationship than a simple "I love you" ever could. The book ends with some wedding scenes, which were the only part of Yellowcake that I really took issue with. Not even Ann Cummins, so skilled at avoiding the syrupy, can write a wedding reception scene without its becoming sugar-encrusted with gossipy aunts and cute flower girls. A few pages feel lifted straight from Steel Magnolias. Blessedly, it's only a brief lapse. She more than redeems herself with the depiction of the relationship between the long-absent Sam and his wary son. In one scene near the end, Delmar and Sam are charged with completing a very important and difficult task together. A lesser writer would have had the two men come to an understanding. They would have made peace, recognized one another's failings, overcome their lifelong disagreements. But these two men, so similar in character, are too damaged and too resentful for something that simple to happen. Cummins knows this, and delivers a resolution that is totally unexpected, yet totally in character.
There are almost no animals in this sun-and-radiation-blasted landscape, save a few notable exceptions. A group of "hobbled horses" used to graze on the lawns of the millworkers' homes, right up to the kitchen windows. Both the houses and the horses are long gone. Ryland has a recurring dream about a fox he used to see running down the "garden path." This was the mill's nickname for a strip of concrete that ran between two leaching ponds: one full of caustic acid, the other of clean water. The animals and the protagonists have a lot in common. Without even realizing it, they're negotiating a life-and-death balancing act, making some sort of life in a place that has become totally hostile to their nature. One can kick up a fuss, try to place blame and get compensation, but it's not going to bring back the past, or heal what's been damaged. This could have been an "issue" novel, The Jungle for the 21st century. But Ann Cummins chose nuance and complex characterization over pounding away at environmental issues, a tactic that winds up revealing their effect in an even more human and devastating way.