Book Reviews | Literary Arts

A Nuclear Alphabet for Downwinders: Michael McLane’s Trace Elements

trace_elementsWhatever librarian catalogued Michael McLane’s chapbook “Trace Elements: Mapping the Great Basin and its Peripheries” gave it the call number QC913.2.A8, which is Library of Congress code for Meteorology—Atomic energy, including radioactive fallout. This slim literary work sits on library shelves near scientific works like Human Exposure to Particulate Debris from Aerospace Nuclear Applications, and Radiation Exposure of Sheep Which Died Following the 1953 Nuclear Tests in Nevada, and that seems like a good place for a work of creative nonfiction dedicated, “for all downwinders, nuclear or otherwise.”

The word “mapping” in the subtitle is a bit misleading, though. The book is not, in fact, a map but rather an alphabet book, counting down from the letter “Z” in reference to the countdown before a rocket launch. Each letter of the alphabet offers up a word related to atomic testing in the western United States along with a short essay. “Z” stands for “Zephyr,” the god of the west wind, but is also a reference to the wind that carried radioactive fallout toward the “low-use segment of the population” living in Utah. Since military brass deliberately waited for the wind to shift away from more densely populated areas before detonating nuclear tests, it was not exactly accidental that the downwinders were standing “downwind” when the bombs went off.

McLane clearly considers the form of the book to be essential since “A” at the end of the backwards alphabet stands for a self-referential “Abecedarium.” Consider the possible meanings: Usually an ABC book is for children, a primer to provide moral or religious instruction in the guise of teaching literacy; alphabetizing is a standard way of organizing or indexing a reference work; and ABC books are also a kind of word game to be solved both by the author and the reader in order to puzzle out what commonality connects arbitrary letters. McLane tells us that, “typically, abecedarian are merely practice,” which is to say, the bombing of the American West was done in the name of testing, framed as a basically harmless exercise in preparation for another, supposedly more real nuclear Armageddon that would, presumably, take place elsewhere on another map. Never mind that real wind really did deposit cancerous nuclear fallout on real people living in the American West.

Over time the nuclear history of the American West has taken on mythic qualities as a tale about hubris in the classical meaning of a tragedy caused by arrogant human beings seeking to become godlike and ultimately punished by offended gods. McLane has dug obsessively into this history to pick out strange anecdotes and hair-raising ironies, and indeed the gods are always there in the background, watching. I hope it is not a spoiler to say that McLane has a clear moral intention in this work, presented in the guise of teaching nuclear literacy. “Occasionally,” he writes, “an alphabet explodes.”

As other abecedarian reviewers have observed, any alphabet book is only as good as its weakest link – the problematic letter “X.” McLane’s X stands for itself, an X that is literally painted on the ground as a target for pilots to drop their nuclear payload. X also stands for “X marks the spot,” a fairly conventional choice that becomes sinister in context; “If an X is present, we say there, we say something. If it is missing, we jump to conclusions, we say there, nothing. This is the origin of the term “region of sacrifice,” the designation given to the Great Basin, an area that encompasses wide swaths of Nevada and Utah.” So the X on the map (or lack thereof) becomes an essential key to understanding McLane’s alphabetic lesson.

I’d say this particular ABC book passes the X test with flying colors.


Michael McLane
Trace Elements: Mapping the Great Basin and its Peripheries
Elik Press
23 pp.


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