In 1999 I made a decision I would regret for the next fifteen years. I decided to write a novel about growing up during the Reagan 1980s. Nothing could be simpler, right?
Last week—fifteen years later—I finally put that novel to bed, publishing it as an ebook rather than hop aboard the I-need-an-agent Merry-Go-Round once again only to come up empty. Although as a writer I’m supposed to find words for just about everything, I don’t believe I can fully express how relieved I am to get the weight of this book off my back.
What the hell. Let’s give it a try.
In 1999, I was struggling to write a short story, a grim little stiff-upper-lip affair of literary pretentiousness (pret-lit?) about teens coming to grips with other teens dying in an auto accident. I’d started the story in a vacuum when it really needed a setting. I grew up east of San Francisco, a town called Livermore, and that seemed about right for this tale of young adult angst. One of the teen’s fathers played a bit part in the narrative. I needed to whip out a quick description of him, just a sentence or two to lay down what kind of metal he was made of. What popped out of the keyboard was this:
“His father studied thermonuclear reactions. He could explain Nagasaki at the subatomic level.”
Eventually I got jammed up on that story and retired it as another dead end. Still, those two sentences remained with me. It sounds masturbatory—it is masturbatory—but I wanted to read about that father and not those dead teens. Unfortunately, the only person I knew who would write that novel for me was me.
So I wrote the words, abandoned the words, revised the words, shopped them around, put them to sleep, almost put them all through the shredder. For the next fifteen years I kept returning to this novel when I so wanted it to go away and leave me alone. I suppose I could say the same thing about my recollections of growing up in Livermore.
Livermore is one of those semi-anonymous suburban Northern California towns that pad out the middle of the state like packing peanuts. We had a hospital that looked like an office building and a City Hall that looked like a modern art museum gift shop. In the 1970s Livermore was mostly known for its wine, which by and large was of the jug variety. Livermore was also known for its gravel pits, but only if you were in the business of purchasing gravel by the metric ton. One-half suburbia, one-half cowtown, three days a year Livermore hosted a rodeo on the national circuit. That long weekend Livermore’s downtown would slide spurs-first into a fairly drunken mess, with the cowboy bars on Main Street doing gangbuster business selling Coors and Jack Daniels by the vat.
We had our predictable share of open-air strip malls, a roller-skating rink good for hosting birthday parties, and a manmade lake for those summer days when it was 100 degrees and the smog index was Nixon’s approval rating, but inverted. A stucco patchwork of housing developments were stamped out in every compass direction from Main Street, itself a forgettable strip of antiques emporiums, Christian bookstores, auto parts chains, and said cowboy bars.
Livermore was also home to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a nuclear research and development center funded and operated by the Federal government. For all of Livermore’s notables—wine, gravel, the world-record light bulb—this is the 800-pound radioactive gorilla in the room. While organized like an academic campus and professed to researching a wide-range of Big Science Stuff, its core focus—let’s not fool ourselves—was developing atomic weapons. The LLNL was founded two decades before I was born by Dr. Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb. My parents weren’t nuclear physicists—neither have a college education—but almost all my friends’ fathers had a Ph.D. and worked at either the LLNL or Sandia Labs, a private nuclear research center literally across the street. Job-hopping between the two laboratories was commonplace.
Some of these scientists could talk about their work, some couldn’t, some just preferred not to. It wasn’t uncommon to hear about so-and-so’s dad working with the CIA on probable Soviet launch sites, or that so-and-so was on the neutron bomb team. Some of Tron was filmed at The Lab, that part where the laser dissects Jeff Bridges molecule by molecule, which is a pretty good analogy of my years in Livermore. The strangeness of it all became the normal, and so the normal became the exotic. Still, this was the Bay Area circa 1970s and 1980s, where there was little “normal” to be found. Scratch your foot in the suburban dirt and weirdness bubbled up like Texas tea.
So in 1999, living in Silicon Valley and scrounging for something interesting to write about, Livermore seemed as far off the radar screen as I could imagine. Who would want to read a book about 1980s suburbia? About high school and crushes and tract homes? About a town that was the center of Cold War weapons development, a town referred to as “The City of Death” in Soviet military literature? Who would want to pick up that book?
I started by scrapbooking memories of Livermore. Took a pen and a notebook and jotted down any thought at all that came up, just sheets of bullet points and shorthand. Much of it was mundane, some of it was junk, but some of it was unique. There was friction and grit in some of it. Some of my memories pushed back, memories I cared not to revisit.
Then there were memories just too surreal to believe, even for myself. How could I forget that our neighbors across the street would have Linus Pauling over to their house for dinner on regular occasions? Or the scientist who travelled everywhere in Livermore—to banks, to grocery stores, on bike, on foot—wearing nothing but a pair of corduroy shorts and tennis shoes, no matter the time of year? Or forget one of the scientists confirming to my parents that, yes, he dressed like that when working at The Lab as well?
And how could I forget my friend’s father returning home one afternoon from work, tie loose and hair splayed, bedraggled from wrestling some top-secret problem? Most likely not a problem scientific in nature, but bureaucratic. Thirteen years of age or so, a computer geek-in-training (largely because I wanted to grow up and write video games, unaware that a prerequisite for writing video games is to have never grown up), I was fascinated with the engineering problems these nuclear scientists must have faced every day. Sitting cross-legged on the lime-green living room shag playing Axis & Allies (and losing badly), I asked how his latest project was proceeding.
He leaned down to my ear and whispered: “Jim, this shit ain’t ever going to work.” Then he went to the kitchen and cracked open a beer from the refrigerator. By “this shit” he meant the LLNL’s latest budget-busting project, the Strategic Defense Initiative, a la Star Wars, a system of laser-equipped satellites promised to protect our country from ICBM attack and end the Cold War. You know, that Cold War, the mad weapons race the laboratory at Livermore had enabled and fostered and contributed to over the prior thirty years.
Any young person growing up in humdrum suburbia is destined to be starved for rebellion and dissent. I found such nourishment in the usual places: Looney Tunes subversion disguised as madcap wackiness, MAD magazine’s middle-fingered salutes to America, William Gibson’s alternate future, all things Monty Python, the innuendo of Match Game with Charles Nelson Reilly and Brett Somers. Even David Letterman was required viewing, back when Letterman was indecipherable to anyone not raised on a diet of American daytime television, that nutrition-free regimen of comfort food plot tropes and the empty calories of 1960s reruns.
That acidic summation from a nuclear scientist toiling to save us from Communist takeover—“This shit ain’t ever going to work”—ranks right up there with every morsel of teenage dissension I eagerly consumed. To this day the predictive power of “This shit ain’t ever going to work” is awesome. The absolute lowering of expectations has never left anyone devastated.
Fifteen years of picking and pushing at this book of mine, all because of this messy batch of raw material Livermore handed me on a silver platter to sift and sort. Everything seemed so directionless in Livermore—“This shit ain’t ever going to work”—that locating the forward inertia in that heap of random energy and impulses was the real job I had signed up for.
Only late in the process did I realize that “This shit ain’t ever going to work” is laced throughout the book, backed right into the title I’ve stuck with since the beginning: Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People.
Now I’m planning my next novel. It won’t be about Livermore, take my word for it.
Still, when I start thinking about it I’m right back on that lime-green shag, chits of World War II tanks and infantry spread out before me, busy devising characters and their backstory and the plot directions they will take, and that voice pops in my head: “This shit ain’t ever going to work.” I’m listening, but only so much.
Jim Nelson’s books include the story collection A Concordance of One’s Life, the novella Everywhere Man, and his new novel. He lives in San Francisco. An excerpt from his new novel was featured as part of The Tusk’s Fiction First Friday. Check it out here.