Fall Out

Release Date: 
June 1, 2013
Madras Press
Reviewed by: 

“. . . the proceeds of the purchase will go to a good cause.”

Fall Out is one of Madras Press’ 5” x 5” gift size chapbook length collections of short stories and/or essays whose sales after covering costs go to charities of the authors’ choosing (Susan Daitch has chosen Women for Afghan Women as the charity to benefit from the sales of Fall Out).

Its 48 pages are the approximate equivalent of a 32-page paperback, and consequently its stories, which consider the long-term consequences of America’s above ground nuclear weapons tests between 1951–1962, are rather short.

The first of the four stories is a two paragraph long piece of flash fiction, and the subsequent three stories would in a normal sized paperback probably range from seven to ten pages each.

In the first story, “Conduction,” in 1953 a college student in Troy, New York, using a Geiger counter detects local radiation levels equal to those of the nuclear test sites in the Nevada desert.

In the second story, “Night of the Avengers,” Ms. Daitch returns to two subjects, filmmaking and xenophobia, she explored at greater length in her novel Paper Conspiracies (also reviewed at NYJB). The title of the story is the title of a low-budget sci-fi movie being shot in 1966 in a desert town about aliens from outer space visiting a small American town.

The narrative alternates between Zweig the film director’s pre-war backstory as a Jew in Weimar and Nazi Germany and the movie within the story’s townsfolk’s reactions to and interactions with the space alien visitors.

As a young man working in the German film industry Zweig has seen the sets left over from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. As an American director, “Zweig loved the desert, the wind-carved canyons, the bursts of flowering cacti, the mesas, which reminded him of a petrified metropolis. He bought a belt and a wallet made of rattlesnake, an animal her would wear but not eat.”

A dozen years later, in the third story “Dust Devil,” after watching Night of the Avengers our socially awkward and inhibited protagonist Melman changes his college major to archaeology, which in graduate school would bring him to the desert (this time in New Mexico, not Nevada) to excavate for Native American artifacts, and where he has to compete with and steer clear of looters.

He wanders into a nudist colony where the guests are friendly and invite him to disrobe and join them, an invitation he declines. There he also sees melted glass souvenirs from the Nevada Test Site. Carmen, the owner of the resort tells Melman about Elmer Palmer, the king of the looters, whom she believes stole her grandfather’s collection. “Palmer swept through the desert like a nuclear blast wind, taking everything with him, every last shred of pottery or basket fiber.”

Carmen is a provincial naïf who believes Melman can report Palmer to the authorities without fear of retribution. Readers may wonder, if Palmer is the king of the looters wouldn’t the authorities already know about him? Melman is reluctant to get involved.

“But he didn’t feel great about doing nothing. The act of not reporting Palmer was like a gorilla suit that consumed him to the point where people identified him as a gorilla. There’s the gorilla who did nothing, they would say, even if that wasn’t, he would insist, how he saw himself. It’s only a suit, he would shout. I’m stuck in it. I can’t find the zipper.”

The last story, “Tourist Attractions,” opens with two 21st century researchers, Alan and Shelley, examining maps on computer screens showing the levels of radiation illness as a result of the above ground atom bomb tests in every county of the country. The worst affected areas “were huddled around Lake George on the New York and Vermont sides. Western Massachusetts . . . hadn’t fared so well either.”

It turns out that Alan’s uncle is Melman from “Dust Devil,” who dropped out of graduate school, changed his name, and moved upstate to the Lake George area where he “had contracted the kind of cancer whose demographics now lay in front of . . .” Alan and Shelly, who disagree about whether it is necessary to travel to the Lake George area and interview the affected patients in person, or whether asking them to participate in an Internet survey is sufficient.

Shelley also has an eccentric relative, a brother who compulsively collects and records the calls and other sounds of a wide variety of animal species.

“Her brother had once described himself as someone who lived in a desert, had read about ice and seen pictures of it, but could only conceptualize it as something extremely hot. Misperceptions take root and the person is convinced they’ve created fact, created a fact-based universe, when what they actually stand on is a house of cards.”

Madras Press books can only be purchased directly from the publisher or from a small number of independent bookstores listed on its website. Fall Out would be an appropriate gift for a socially conscious reader of literary fiction, and the proceeds of the purchase will go to a good cause.