Wiggins’ writing dazzles. Characters read and talk about Moby Dick and you know them by their sensitivity to Melville; Wiggins uses epithets from Moby Dick as introductions to chapters; Whitman figures in too. Emily Dickinson and the Scopes trial make cameo appearances. She’s writing an “American” book—I think writers gave up on the idea of writing the “the great American novel” or else just settled on Moby Dick for that honor and pay appropriate tribute. The focus of the novel is unseen energy—both the kind that was developed by the Manhattan Project during WWII and love, the energy that powers real people. Her short opening chapter ties it all together. Here are a few bits of it:
Somewhere in the heart of North America there is a desert where the heat of several suns fused the particles of sand into a single sheet of glass so dazzling it sends a constant signal to the moon. ... One way or another each of us is drawn to this forbidden place. Like a magnet, this glass desert calls our irons the way the whale’s heart used to beckon a harpoon. ... This desert’s name is Trinity. One day the sun rose twice there in a single mourning and Man saw his face reflected on the underside of Heaven…. The creation of the universe, that day, was reenacted. This time God was not the only audience. If birth is fission, then the love we make is fusion….
“The day the sun rose twice” by the way, is not original. There’s a book, The Day the Sun Rose Twice: The Story of the Trinity Site Nuclear Explosion, July 16, 1945 by Ferenc Morton Szasz. Wiggins, however, hauls out the metaphor for its human and moral implications as well as the historical ones.
Light infuses the story, from the characters’ names to their fascinations to the novel’s themes. It’s the story of Fos and Opal and Flash, Fos’ army buddy from the trenches in France where they worked together with chemicals and explosives. And Lightfoot, the son of Fos and Opal who falls in love with a girl whose mother’s name was Pearl. Ray Foster (“Fos”) had no formal education but is fascinated by science and travels every August from Knoxville to the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to observe the annual meteor shower from the constellation Perseus. On one such trip he meet and marries Opal who lived with her father, the glass blower, who created his magic in the “glory hole”. It is Flash who suggests he and Fos set themselves up in a photographic studio where Fos can make some money and still pursue his scientific interests. It is not until Opal takes over the books that he learns Flash is really Chance Luttrell, scion of a wealthy family he’s disowned and that Flash put up the money for their equipment and pays Fos’ salary. It’s Flash who reads Moby Dick and gives it to Opal.
There’s also the traveling light show that Fos and Opal take on the road in the good weather, to country fairs and get togethers. Fos has always been fascinated with natural phosphorescence as well as with x-rays and radiation, with Roentgen and Madam Curie. Not surprisingly, the centerpiece of the show is a portable x-ray machine, of the sort that the Buster Brown store had when I was a kid and where the shoe salesman showed your mother how the shoes fit. Feet and hands were easiest to see on Fos’ machine and Opal was always the “subject” though fairgoers were invited see inside themselves as well. If you cringe like I did when you hear of this particular attraction, you’ll be anticipating as I did, one tragedy of this novel.
The plot is complex but every twist is linked with the themes of light and love in their constructive and destructive forms. Opal’s cousin living along the Tennessee River gives us a glimpse of hardscrap rural faming life in the 20s. He has two children who die, one by touching a live wire. Opal and Fos can’t conceive and eventually “find” Lightfoot and raise him. Fos works for awhile as official photographer for TVA (which will bring light as electricity to the farms and stop the devastating floods). During the second war, he and Opal both work at Oak Ridge. Flash falls in love with an underage society girl who comes to Fos for photography lessons and when she dies from a botched abortion, Flash’s brother, Tay Luttrell, the district attorney happily prosecutes him under the Mann Act. And 20 years later Flash is resurrected from prison in time to help Lightfoot, sent to an orphanage after his parents’ deaths, understand the heritage they left.
It’s a grand novel, well worth a second reading. Not one you hear a great deal about….