Saturday, July 12, 2014

Uncle Anton's Atomic Bomb - Ian Woollen

Uncle Anton's Atomic Bomb by Ian Woollen (forthcoming from Coffeetown Press, September 2014)
"Ward fumbled for a cigarette. He knew that it was impossible for him to share this concern with her. He sat nervously lapsing into his Wangert stare. The stare contained something different now. In the ineffable, ageless way that passion can suddenly, out of the blue, infect a human heart, Ward Lynton Wangert had just fallen in love with Mary Grace Stark. Fortunately, he said the best possible thing that he could say to her at this moment. 

He said, 'Let's talk more about Chekhov.'"
And thus, in the early 1950's, on a train bound for a boat that will take Mary Grace Stark on a CIA-funded mission to Moscow, begins the charming and humorous story of Mary and Ward's lifetime together. Not long after she arrives in Moscow, Mary becomes pregnant under circumstances she declines to explain, and writes to Ward, imploring him to come to her rescue. He does, and they marry and raise this son, and subsequently two more, leading the lives of a typically American family in middle America, growing and changing over the decades along with the political and cultural changes of the American Zeitgeist.

Of course, the Wangerts are not entirely typical. He Who Shall Remain Classified, the CIA operative who first recruited Mary to Moscow, cannot relinquish his curiosity about Mary and the family, occasionally interacting with them and covertly influencing their lives. Ward, who has inherited the family public relations/lobbying business, finds he is not quite as suited to the work as his larger-than-life father was. Mary is forced to deal with her secrets, turning to psychotherapy and women's empowerment encounter groups. Anthony, their first-born, comes out just as AIDS is coming into the public awareness; another of their boys gets kicked out of prep school and pursues a more unplugged lifestyle. The family members grow together and grow apart, with the tense specter of the Cold War looming in the background, and we wonder if and how they will hold together.

Uncle Anton's Atomic Bomb is the second novel I have read by Ian Woollen (the first being Hoosier Life & Casualty), and I leaped at the opportunity to review it. As I expected, this is a delightful novel, with an eccentric but heartwarming cast of characters you cannot help but like - even our villain with the Voldemort-reminiscent name. I was also intrigued to learn, after reading the book, that Mary's story was in part based on the author's own mother's adventures in Moscow, and one can feel while reading that while the book is of course a fiction, that it is also very personal. The characters are warm and compelling, funny and easy to relate to as they struggle with finding their places in family and in the world at large, and Woollen tells their stories with wisdom, compassion and insight. Perhaps because there is such a lovely balance of humor, the stakes for each of them never seem too terribly high, and thus the story does not quite achieve the most dramatic of dramatic peaks. I found the book absorbing regardless, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Recommended for readers who love Americana, humor, quirky ensembles, and an engaging family saga.

Ian Woollen's first novel, Stakeout on Millennium Drive, won the 2006 Best Book of Indiana Fiction Award. His short fiction has been published in a variety of journals, including The Massachusetts Review, Juked,decomP, and The Mid-American Review, from which he received a Sherwood Anderson Prize. You can learn more about Uncle Anton's Atomic Bomb at Coffeetown Press's website.

My thanks to the publisher for a complimentary review copy of the novel.

Happy reading!


  1. I love books with quirky characters! "He Who Shall Remain Classified" is cute, but I'm getting a little tired of Harry Potter references (as much as I love HP).

    1. Lots of wonderfully characters and good humor a-plenty. (Beyond the name nothing that would make you think of HP - just a bit of fun I suspect :D).

  2. I totally would have passed on this if not for your review. It sounds fascinating and charming! Adding to the TBR.

    1. It is very charming - look forward to hearing your thoughts on it!


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