Gary Brandt's novel The Vault Apocalyptia started with a dream. Not a dream of writing a book, but an actual dream. Thirty-odd years ago, Brandt dreamt he was on a walking tour of Earth after a nuclear war, smoking ruins and all. He was in a creative writing class at the time, and the dream begot a 10-page short story. That grew into a 100-page novella. In 2002, he embarked on turning his dream into a full-blown novel that he finally finished this summer. And what a novel it is.
The dense, satirical book follows a tour of the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, N.M. A chirpy docent leads readers through displays, songs, character studies and texts within texts that add up to an intricately fashioned alternative history of America's absurdly horrifying atomic age.
Brandt's tone blends Leave It to Beaver–era credulity and advertising hucksterism with a wry sense of humor about what's really going on. The expansive, digressive style and delicious wordplay channel James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon.
Brandt, by the way, is the Bohemian's copy editor, but as his book makes clear, he's a hell of a writer, too. The excerpt below introduces readers to one of the most gleefully drawn characters in the book, the bomb-making prodigy Ruben Boomerkoff. —Stett Holbrook
We keep first appointment with a man of immense stature and standing in his field. Great discourse has passed on the nature of his work. He verily invites controversy. He is loved. He is loathed. Few go unmoved. One spectator likened him to the gods (rightly so, though whose and which is subject to terrific debate): "That timeless man," he fathomed, "ageold yet newborn!" He evokes metaphor: "Our common father," another proclaimed him, and we "his bewildered children." And swooned one incisive critic in a penetrating review: "An ape palm weighs the newly discovered element fire . . . A frail pink wrist balances the quiet generations to come . . . Never before so simple! Not until now so clear! A must! Flock to!"
Still, we gather numerous complaints. Certain taxpayers of sound mind claim our man's been aiming for years to do them in with that "confounded hardware" of his, and average Joes of no frenetic stripe avow on their honor the hoodwinker has actually threatened them with employment offers making "the front ends of horses" or some such perversity. In truth not a one of us fares brightly under exalted credentials as his.
Listen: who taught himself in utero, to pass a dull gestation, the art of knots, convoluting his umbilical in pursuit of the flawless sheepshank, clove hitch, or bowline on the bight; who was the infant savant, a Hermes at the lyre, prattling off at eleven months the lexicons of no less than five major nuclear capable countries; who was the marvel tot, duddy's little lummikins, in rompers yet and endeavoring nightly to dispel a chronic dyssomnia by enumerating decidedly unconventional sheep: ". . . 86000 seconds to a day, 31536000 seconds to a year, 61859136600 seconds since Jesus who loves me was born in a manger . . ."; who was the adolescent wunderkind, graduate cum laude, Massachusetts Institute of Technology class of seventyeight, hardly a year to the day after a razor first traversed those pimplecongested cheeks; who is the minder of machines, whom the experts call expert, with his inheritance of numbers ("No sweeter manna than a conundrum unraveled," said he), heuristophile, technolurgist, selfstyled philosophizer—see him? Our genius with the bonus gem, he stirs in waiting just ahead. There in diorama, whitesmocked, hunched, and calculating. Now who, ladies and gentlemen, can that be there? It's not Doppler. It's not Wheeler. It's not Planck. Is it Boltzmann? Is it Bernal? Is it Tesla? Barnhardt or Coulomb? R. Hume or Fizeau? Pascal? Laplace? Is it Kepler, Galileo Galilei? No?—Rube, is that you?
Exhibit A. Curious beginnings. A misfortunate end. Rube, the scientist.
(With a broadly swept flourish the doctor, puffing, indicates the spread of his study: hissing blue jets kiss beaker bottoms; luminous elixirs in alembics boil; bellows huff; pelicans percolate; PC monitors glow greenly, cursors blinking, as lines of data march upscreen. In actinoponic greenhouses, silent underlings poke and weigh exquisite bloated peanut pods, and inject radiobe fertilizer into sturdy stems of ten-foot Arctic avens. Control group respondents, their cancers cured, file buoyantly toward officious technicians uncapping vials of radithor tonic and administering doses of eonite, meteorium, and cyclotrode X. Muted press men clamor at the panels; above them, cybershuttles, flying wings, orbit ivory spires, smokeless stacks. A harbor is visible. Leaving quays, nucleon schooners ply the corridor, exporting cargoes. Several blocks townward, lining broad bejeweled avenues, stand rows of white houses, roof tiles glittering, terraces dripping vines. Plastic clear autos on clean roadways hum by, skimming hushly. It's springtime, the suns shine, teens steer mowers over lawn while moms in capris offer limeade in dixie cups to whistling postmen. Bluebirds trill. Wrens twitter. Downtown, in an immaculate plaza, round public monuments where tourists throng, an orchestra tunes, a parade commences, gongs, kettles, tenor drums echoing the faint rumble from below where the steel dynamos churn . . . )
- BOMBS AWAY The United States’ one thousand–plus named test shots are embedded, like toxic truffles, in the text of Brandt’s explosive novel.
A breathing testament to inspired fortitude, Rube over the years has drawn resolution from ingenious corners to deftly turn several physiological perversions toward ultimately his fatherland's behoof. Consider the Rube of nursling years. Beset by developmental aberrations—one, a poorly oriented rooting reflex that provoked the neonatal Rubey at the fragile age of a single hour to nuzzle his sire's feeble nipple over his mother's firmer mamma (since deemed premier vocational training, as many in ordnance R and D are now suckled on the ungenial titsap of fatherhood); and the other, a latent third testicle misdiagnosed on first opinion as a lollock and on second as a scirrhoid and which only manifested outright following the onset of puberty (but then as a boon twice over, accountable for both Rube's vigorous and inordinate nationalism (surfeit testosterone—it courses more thickly than blood!) and later inclination toward things protractive (like limited response scenarios) and things generative (like warhead delivery systems))—Rube, in firm defiance of ill effect or stigma and favored with a hankering for life of a less tender more gruffish nature, nonetheless went on to prosper from a boyhood not unlike the boyhoods of those destined to serve in either abbey or penitentiary, for how similar indeed are all in youth.
Gangly Ruben Boomerkoff, the quintessence of his kin, the flower of his predecessors (the New England Boomerkoffs, née Bombekopf, fine old Saxon stock), whiled a swannish youth in the Cambridge suburbs pursuing under the stewed eye of his father, a widower with too fond a taste for the Islay grain, his three passions: reading in the summer, ice hockey in the winter, and chemistry yearlong. His earliest recollections depict long days decocting pints of fresh whiz into urea precipitates, compounds of which he used to knock stray pets into slumber. Through the aid of some musty volumes misshelved behind histories of horsies and princes, Alexanders and Akbars in the public library's Treasure Room, Rube nurtured a precocious fascination with explosives (but only for experiment, as dated police reports will corroborate), beginning with pelleted powder and guncotton and graduating in time to the simpler nitrogen iodides. Few possessions, indeed, gave Rube greater satisfaction than his collection of craters, arranged by row over the backyard lawn, depths and radii exactingly measured and logged in a binder kept pillowside.
Mathematics, of course, and its applications engrossed him, for what, he reasoned, wasn't improved through its precepts? Once, for instance, after observing at practice the varsity softball team, he confidently coached abler batters at what angle uppercut to shave off a swing in order to better bean a pitcher with a calculated line drive. While mates sucking Red Hots frolicked amid twilit hours in front yards and streetsides, playing at war with peashooters and water balloons, there was Ruben hunkered curbside over his Big Chief tablet, ponderously penciling grids by the edge of a balsa ruler and graphing ratios of targets hit to peas shot and balloons filled. When a pissing contest was called and the neighborhood boys gathered by the church lot after school, giggling like gnomes and peeling from the folds of their shorts dinky peckers tweezed between thumb and forefinger, Rube was there too doling out water and near beer and plotting pissarc trajectories by twigscratch in the sand.
He could exemplify the pacifistic introvert yet loved nothing more than the crunch of cracking bicuspids as he elbowed a home team's forward. Naturally was Rube a reader, the kind that gorged on words. The dulcet sonnet could wrench a tear from his eye though tragic drama better suited his personal aesthetic, especially romances of the type ending in lovers' mutual suicide. He read for elucidation treatises by Clausewitz, Sun-tzu, and Nicomachus of Gerasa; for pleasure works by Kaempffert, Gustave Le Bon, and the great Mesmer; and with gusto the utopian futures of Wells. Often, in recovery from the noise of days, he'd indulge a yearning for solitude and spend whole nights rooftop sketching in conté crayon the black void between stars and composing little sapphics on the hugeness of it all. He felt, at these times, the sensation of being observed, studied by some wadza in the heavens, prepared, he sensed, for something momentous by strangers above the clouds . . .
- WHO'S YOUR DADDY? The bio of father of the atomic bomb Robert Oppenheimer is subject to some tasteless revisionism in ‘The Vault Apocalyptia.’
Under astonished tutors he mastered a host of additional tongues, rapidly, that he'd intone fluently as English though which he insisted on speaking, to his delight and his instructors' chagrin, simultaneously, for a lark. He attempted romantic rondeaux, in Sanskrit, though confessed to his intendeds feeling stumped getting shringara and pralaya to rhyme right. High school held little challenge for the young Rube (he was then two years junior his freshman classmates), and to bide the odd hours he hatched reckless and elaborate pranks. He laced fruits with fun drugs, like the ergots, and stealthily set them on teachers' desks during recess, stuck with cards forged in bullies' script. One afternoon, to the principal's dismay, he linked the school's master clock to its phone system then privately chuckled as every incoming call projected the hands two minutes closer the final bell. His antics won him by turns the applause of fellow students, who thought him heroic and clever, and the reproach of exasperated faculty, who found him archly aloof. His spirits might ascend on wings of sublimest glory or as quickly plummet under weight of direst melancholy dispelled finally by his quandary over whether suicide, homicide, or omnicide would best abate his gripping teenage angst.
Buffeted by pubescence, Rube acquired the gawky features redolent of classic scientific "queerness." He had a cropped rust do, freckles the size of lentils, a planktoothed girlshy rictus, and ears that stuck out like two ivory cabinet handles. He had a beetling brow with a stately tall forehead which inclined above it sheer as the Galveston seawall. His lips were thin, the width of a good thick one bisected, and he had a beakish nose, a hawk's nose, that earned him the envy of his peers when he later found his calling. His eyes might seem claygray then silversteel or even oilbrown, with a gaze that looked piercing and sharp when imperturbable yet perturbed and dull when nothing in sight worth piercing appeared. From a long frame lithe limbs hung like halfwilling accomplices unsure of their role in a crime plot. His feet tripped over each other like newly paired dance partners, and his nimble fanlike hands, ambidextrous, which pantomimed tortuously when he spoke, as if explicating to a tribe of foreign laloplegics, seemed uncertain what the other was doing, so often did things twice. His neck was too spindly, like a lollipop stick, his shoulders too narrow, his complexion too fair, his chest too caved, his fingers too fine, his back too bowed, his grip too limp and his touch too clammy, and his arches were flat, with toes too splayed when they weren't, in weather too cold, curling under.
For diversion Rube preferred fraternal outings but did attend, begrudgingly, his junior prom with one Tulia Hognose, a bookish and tubby sort (beauty frightened as much as it fascinated chary Rube), and it was during the course of the evening that he beheld his first breast. Something in its curve repelled him though and he sought in future to forswear its ilk, but his condition polyorchitis eventually exerted its influence and landed him a doomed marriage in later years. When, in his mid teens, his father's bomb shelter was razed by a small brush fire Rube, then scouting universities, resolved to devote himself fully to the study of applied physics. He was sixteen when he entered MIT—the freshest yet to pledge Phi Beta Epsilon. He topped the curriculum with ease and swiftly, and among numerous honors won Rube earned that rare prize, an interview with the Hertz Foundation. High marks on their Industry Acronym Recognition Exam (the IARE) secured him a graduate fellowship at California's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, which led soon after to fulltime hire. Upon submitting his dissertation at the age of twentytwo Rube cultivated a magnificent mustache to mark the occasion, with bristly bars of sideburn to match. . . .
The Vault Apocalyptia: A Response from a Far-off Reader
Upon receiving a copy of Gary Brandt's 'The Vault Apocalyptia,' I knew there was one person—perhaps the only person?—who would really appreciate it, get in under Gary's dense and dancing prose and revel in it. Bill Saunders isn't just an ace decipherer of so-called difficult fiction; he absolutely thrives on the stuff. Saunders, a resident of New Haven, Conn., is an engineer-turned-freak who has the rare capacity and patience for sustained interactions with fiction from the likes of William Gass and Thomas Pynchon. Fiction that requires concentration and commitment over the long haul. As a former New Haven resident, I used to run into Bill at the local bookstore-cafe, head plunged into his latest difficult pleasure as he slogged back a dark coffee and cackled aloud at the insights and treasures unfolding from his latest intellectual mind-bender. I sent Bill a copy of Gary's book recently and he quickly—scarily—sent the below response to it, a reaction, really, that speaks to the singular science-mind of Saunders and his limitless capacity for engagement and enjoyment for prose that'll make your head spin like so many nuclear centrifuges.—Tom Gogola
Gentlemen: Someone from your offices recently dispatched to me (via post) a small package containing an Incendiary Device disguised as a First Novel.1
Quite frankly, I am shocked that a peace-nikky-named organization like
the Bohemian would be behind such a blatant propaganda scheme denouncing the virtues of "Free Energy."
FOOL BEFORE—NOT THIS TIME
'Terrorists already on a Watch List' 2
As the slow-seconds pass3, it is clear to me that I am either:
(a) the Intentional Target of something Singularly Sinister;
or (b) a Hapless Victim —A 'Mild-Mannered' Everyman Caught in the Fray;
or (c) the Mark of a Cruel Joke (but that is kind of like (a))
Q: Does it really, Matter?
A: You have really created an existential crisis for me!!!
AFFIDAVIT OF AUTHENTICITY
I do hereby solemnly attest that I have thoroughly read all materials enclosed in an apparently vain attempt to diffuse this soon-to-be metastasizing situation. I swear that I've have sworn while puzzling through the countless codes enciphered and encrypted in this dense, dark and entertaining postmodern nuclear tour4-de-force (to no good-end, I might add); and finally, I will pray to 'A-God-That-I-Do-Not-Yet-Believe-In', if you will reply to me forthwith with some simple and possibly life-saving information . . .
"HOW DO YOU STOP THIS DAMNED BOOK FROM TICKING!?!!"
A-MEN/HURRY (time is of the essence)5
p.s. Not to point fingers, but I Blame Weird-Al Einstein, Szilard the Lizard and Terror Fermi. These Little Boys spent so much time a-wooing their 'Dream Baby', that as Fat Men . . . they've no energy left to keep 'the bitch' in-line. And if these Giants of Science can't free the 'City' from the Atrocity Exhibition6, where does that leave us as an Enduring Nation and Gentle Race?
Let me Teller a story about a man that tried to count to a billion but lost his place . . .7
Shit! Where was I . . .
Surely some eager young Rube will rise to save the day . . .
Enter Stage Left, Right on cue, one Ruben Boomerkoff, a Particulist, born with an extra gonad, fed from his father's feeble tit, an MIT graduate and collectible chapbook author of such renowned titles as Peace Is Hell and More Edible Spinoffs of the U.S. Weapons Program . . . this bomb-head with an uncontrollable hard-on really seemed to be on the verge of some necessary breakthrough before unexpectedly exploding on page 32.8
There are many outlandish theories about Ruben's mysterious demise—was Boomer's death caused by a gastrointestinal reaction of a steady diet of pork rinds and Pepsi . . . or was it just a quark of circumstance?9
Personally, I find these hypotheses to be as far-fetched as the moon landing.
Let's face it, the closest someone ever got to going supernova was when young Franklin Richards had his telepathic mind overstimulated by the vengeful Annihilus.10
Save that radioactive horseshit for the pulps, I say.
Circumstances always change with the next issue.
Let's relook at this problem using Occam's Razor—the Law of Parsimony, the simplest answer being generally considered the most likely solution.12
Applying this century-old method, I can only come to one conclusion regarding this Bold Theoretician's Untimely Death: Spontaneous Human Combustion.13
In fact, the answer was so obvious that these over-educated eggheads couldn't figure it out . . . But it happens sometimes . . . people just explode.14
Upon further reflection, it became clear to me that this Purportedly Scientific Publication15 has been bombarding me with nucular mis-information from the minute I looked at 'the flap.'
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission Report, nothing but a bad song and dance routine.16
That struck me as strange, but riddle me this:
If so many of the scientists working in the 'Advanced Physics Department' at the Los Alamos Research Facility grew wombs and gave berth to a Nuclear Family, what happened to all of their little Bombinos?—the author really should have provided a proper historical footnote.17
The Letter-Writer's Counter-Proof (using hysterical anecdote):
A) I am a grandchild of "the bomb," "the bitch," whatever you want to call "it."
B) My grandfather was a Navy sailor in the South Pacific during the Big One.
C) Equatorially speaking, he played King Neptune in the Line-Crossing Ceremony.
H) He witnessed many tests while serving on the USS A.E. Newman in a Bikini.
X) My Grandfather didn't grow no freakin' womb—no f'n way—FUN-GOO!!!
ERGO: IF THAT IS WHAT YOU'RE IMPLYING, THE CONSEQUENCES WILL BE 'POSTAL'.
(NOTE: When they fried Ethel Rosenberg twice as an atom-spy, that was about 'The Womb'.)19
It is lies like these that disgrace the honor of those who have sacrificed for our Great Country.20
If this boils down to a question of Manliness, Meat and Potatoes, what's with all the Eggs?21
That is to say, if no one is going make steak tartare, what's the Freaking Point???22
Whether a Scattering of Design, or just a Splattering of Luck,
If Certainty is the Ultimate Deterrent , We are Certainly Truly Fucked!24
p.p.s. I will kindly thank you on Tuesday for saving my ass today. Meet me at 0.00 hrs in the snack bar25 for some irradiated milk and microwave weenies.
p.s.s.t. If this book doesn't self-destruct, can I get it autographed?26
1. The Vault Apocalyptia, written by Gary Brandt, copyright 2016, Stormy Day Books.
2. The Bohemian, future headline story by Tom Gogola, Special Uri Geller Edition
3. Russian Army Watch, Made in China, Yuri Gagarin 50th Anniversary Model
4. National Museum of Nucelar Science & History (formerly the National Atomic Museum), 601 Eubank Blvd., SE, Albuquerque, N.M., 87123
5. (or neither exist . . .)
6. Op. Cit., NAM, Pioneers of the Atom exhibit
7. Ibid., Decision to Drop exhibit
8. Op. cit., TVA, pgs. 12–32
9. Op. cit., NAM, Energy Encounter exhibit
10. Fantastic Four #141, (Dec. 1973), Marvel Comics11
11. Op. cit., NAM, Atomic Pop Culture exhibit
12. William of Ockham was a Friar, too.
13. Stranger than Science (1959), written by Frank Edwards, Lyle Stuart Publishing
14. Repo Man (1984), written and directed by Alex Cox; released by Relativity Media
15. Op. cit., TVA
16. Ibid., Uranium Cycle exhibit
18. The "proper historical footnote" remains Classified.
19. Op. cit., NAM, Secrets, Lies and Atomic Spies exhibit
20. Factoid: After witnessing the Destroying Angels, none of Newman's seamen sired sons
21. Op. cit., NAM, Temporary Exhibit Hall
22. Of course, it is possible that I might have missed something—I duly admit that a denseness of prosody and plethora of poetic license provided ample containment from some of the lingering truths at the core of this atom-aged riddle.23
23. Headscratchers like: "Why Do Most Super-Powers Prefer their Detente Over-Easy, or is the Yolk on Them?"
24. Op. cit., NAM, Radiation 101 exhibit
25. Op. cit., NAM, Ground Zero Cafe
26. Ibid. Please visit our gift shop.