In Robert Arellano’s Curse the Name former journalist James Oberhelm has taken a cushy job working on Surge, the in-house newsletter at New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, writing puff pieces on the quirky hobbies of the lab’s atomic physicists. On an overnight camping trip, he sees some of his articles hanging on the wall of a long-abandoned cabin. Baffled and more than a little frightened, he returns to Los Alamos, where he finds out the cabin was the scene of a mass murder in the 1800s and that other mysterious deaths have been connected to it.
The more Oberhelm investigates, the more his life falls apart. As his drinking and drug use segue from recreational to habitual, his wife leaves him and federal agents question his patriotism. In the meantime, a group known as Pax Kyrie, composed of antinuke activists, arrives in Los Alamos to hold their annual vigil on the anniversary of Trinity, the United States’ first A-bomb test. Oberhelm, no longer quite sober or quite sane, begins to believe the deaths in the abandoned cabin are somehow connected to a future tragedy that involves the entire town of Los Alamos.
Curse the Name is one scary book, and you’ll have a hard time sleeping after you put it down. It describes the government’s sloppy handling of nuclear materials and their possible impact on surrounding communities. The Navajo reservation has already been poisoned, Arellano points out, and posits that the entire state of New Mexico might be next. The author deftly illustrates the tendency of state and federal governments to cover up their mistakes with evasions and lies, even when ever-increasing populations continue to be threatened. Not that Arellano screams from the pulpit. His arguments are subtle, his tone muted. In the end, we are seeing through the eyes of a strung-out, paranoid drug user who may—or may not—be accurately forecasting a nuclear holocaust yet to come.